Czech President Milos Zeman, Donald Trump and other over-the-top personalities may not offer any practical solutions to society's problems, but they do have a function in an increasingly uniform political arena.
BERLIN — You have to hand it to Miloš Zeman. The Czech president is funnier than all his European counterparts combined. While our well-behaved politicians bored their fellow countrymen to tears this holiday season with good wishes and predictable appeals, Zeman's Christmas speech came off as a satirical take on the whole thing.
There he was, an older gentleman sitting in his living room — and teaching his subordinates and the world a lesson. The current wave of refugees engulfing Europe is not to be understood as a state of emergency, he said, but as an invasion that had been planned for many years. Rather than flee to the West, Zeman argued, the young Arabs should defend their country as Czech patriots did during World War II.
Not even a trace of Christmas clemency and mercy. The surreal 15 minutes with the president ended with what can only be described as a parody on compassion. The Czech Republic is not responsible for everyone and none of the needy will be allowed to cross the border. This was followed by a big grin and the best wishes for 2016. The End.
If Zeman were the leader of Germany, rather than the Czech Republic, that would have been the end of his political career. Germans would have taken to the street. But some countries seem to be a bit more lenient with eccentrics, even powerful and high-profile ones. In such places, discourse is not automatically curtailed by taboos or bans on thinking the unthinkable.
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Czech President Milos Zeman — Photo: MichaÅ‚ Józefaciuk
Zeman's behavior does, of course, anger many a Czech as well. Protestors once even flew an overlarge pair of red underpants instead of the national flag. Zeman's former rival for the presidency, Karel Schwarzenberg, commented with resignation that "it really is a pity that a Christmas speech doesn't have anything to do with Christmas." But the non-Christian Zeman didn't care about such comments. He didn't mention the baby Jesus at all, and simply described the world the way he saw it. Is that really such a scandal?
A worldwide phenomenon is taking place, where louts and eccentrics are mixing up the political arena. How dull would the dragging pre-election campaign in the United States be without Donald Trump? It is not only interesting for media professionals but also for the bored Internet community when a potential candidate for the highest office in the country insults the Latino minority as he pleases, kicks out an unpopular journalist and seemingly says whatever comes to mind.
Lapses by other candidates for the White House also reveal a few disturbing world views: The Holocaust could have been prevented if laxer gun laws had allowed European Jews to arm themselves; the Berlin Wall should be rebuilt at the Mexican border; global warming is a matter of perception; and nuclear bombs should be used on rebellious Arabs.
Should someone with these world views indeed be seated in the Oval Office, next to the red button, we might want to be worried. But even if that did happen, we would likely discover quickly enough that people like Donald Trump don't bite as fiercely as they bark. The candidate's verbal attacks, it's safe to say, are simply an advertisement strategy designed to garner attention in the infinite space of the media galaxy. Once in office, he would probably act much more rationally.
Past experiences suggest that eccentric people who wield power actually cause much less damage than expected. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had dealings with young women of dubious morals throughout his political career and even made starlets ministers. Instead of perusing important information at his desk until the wee hours of the morning, he preferred to go to private parties or manage his Milan football club. At times he was out of commission for weeks recovering from plastic surgery procedures. And yet, because a functioning cabinet staffed by political professionals was always at hand, Berlusconi's antics barely affected day-to-day politics.
What is truly remarkable is that Berlusconi's bunga-bunga approach to politics never hurt his popularity. He was not voted out of office but removed only after an intra-party revolt. It seems that a lot of Italians liked the anti-political and glamorous ego trip of their minister-president. And now that he's gone, the media bemoans the lack of juicy scandals from the grey area between prostitution and politics.
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Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi — Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/PR
Could it be that the serious business of governing is notoriously overrated? Belgium, for instance, did not have a functioning government for more than a-year-and-a-half. And everything seemed to be working perfectly within the state seeing as, for once, no vain politician interfered with the daily business of civil servants and technocrats.
Even Germany's happiest times in its catastrophic history were overseen by Heinrich Lübke (1959-1969), an obviously scatterbrained president, who was not able to construct a single clear sentence and even, at times, forgot in which city he was that day. But despite all this, under the anti-despot's leadership, Germany dared to elicit more democracy, its women dared to demand more rights, and its rebellious students helped shape a more relaxed and less uptight world.
Which is why the Czech population should try to get along with its elected mess of a president. The Czech national hero, a well-behaved soldier named Švejk, demonstrated — albeit in literature — that mindless political leaders should de-mystify themselves by their actions. Zeman, who has already been called a psychological and alcohol-prone wreck by a national newspaper, will not let up after all.
The crazy president announced in an interview towards the end of the year that the Czech Republic will join the EU's Economic and Monetary Union only when Greece is finally kicked out. The Greek ambassador to the Czech Republic was recalled almost immediately afterwards — perhaps a bit of an overreaction since the Greeks aren't exactly known for their sensitive political movements. One would think they could handle the occasional harsh comment.
This is the invigorating effect of politicians going against the well-regulated flow of diplomacy. A president as resistant to good counsel as Miloš Zeman may not pay any heed to etiquette. But at least he's willing to tackle taboo topics most of his colleagues prefer to avoid. While others in positions of power bluster about supposed improvements to the Greek economy, Zeman's lapse of etiquette is quite a pleasant alternative.
Likewise, by choosing not to whitewash the refugee crisis and frame it as a humanitarian and economic opportunity, the Czech president is expressing the fears of millions of Europeans who feel excluded by the discourse on the subject. Dissent is something that any true democracy should support and be able to handle.
In Germany, Zeman's behavior is called "populism." And it's true that the brute force arguments that he, Trump, or others like them, hammer on about, are not practical in the real world of government business. But does that also mean that all polemic and provocation should be eradicated from public speech? Even unpopular thoughts are part of democracy. They might even be called the spice needed in the otherwise rather tasteless soup of political uniformity.
A populist such as Zeman highlights the dangers of political boredom. Because when all politicians in Germany are only treading correct linguistic terrain, when talk shows only invite a select few who repeat the same well-meaning clichés, when only smiling insurance agents will do as politicians, when thinking and behavior at the edge of mainstream is left to eccentrics alone, then democracy will become "tasteless." And the popularity of populists at that stage should not be surprising.