Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Rosenkranz as entertaining as Guildenstern

Austrian politics provides wonderful entertainment for the uninvolved spectator.

A few years ago we had the flamboyant Jörg Haider. As leader of the hard right Austrian People’s Party, he turned it into a national force before not so much leaving it as storming out in a temper to found another even harder right-wing organisation. He naturally stood for everything that was pure and orthodox and traditional – white, Christian, European, German-speaking. On the other hand, he kept it quiet that he was gay, something that emerged after his death, an event lamented only by a lover who at least had the guts to come out of the closet and mourn his partner publicly.

The loss of Haider left a terrible gap on the European stage. It’s now been filled by Barbara Rosenkranz, candidate for President from the same Austrian People’s Party in which he made his name.

It would be great if she could find herself a running mate called Guildenstern, since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead is one of my favourite plays. Though it wouldn’t really be appropriate: the play features two rather inoffensive and quite attractive characters to whom everything seems to happen, evoking the sympathy of the onlooker. Nothing like Austrian Freedom Party people.

The one point on which I, worryingly for me, actually agreed with Rosenkranz was in her opposition to laws against Holocaust Denial, as exist in Germany and Austria. I find it terribly worrying when we try to ban beliefs or statements of belief: at worst, such a ban seems to breach freedom of thought, at the very least it breaches freedom of speech. And let’s not forget that, as Søren Kierkegaard pointed out, ‘people demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use’. I certainly insist on the right to talk at length about matters without necessarily knowing, or thinking, much about them. One of the great pleasures in life, I feel.

In any case, why should we care whether people think, or claim to think, that the Holocaust never happened? To me it sounds about as sensible as claiming that the Roman Empire never happened. After all, I never actually saw the Roman Empire any more than I saw the Holocaust, and all I have as evidence that it existed is documents and remains, all of which you could believe had been specifically created to fool us into thinking the Roman Empire had existed. If you’re sufficiently paranoid or sufficiently dumb.

As Tom Cruise points out in A few good men, stupidity isn’t against the law. Nor should it be.

It’s frightening to find I agree on anything with a representative of the Austrian People’s Party, so it was a tremendous relief to read that she’d dropped her objection to the Holocaust Denial law. She wants to be President. She realised that changing her position was the price – like Henry IV of France converting from Protestantism to Catholicism in order to take the throne, pointing out that Paris was worth a Mass, she understands that nothing so trivial as a fundamental belief ought to stand in the way of access to high office.

So Austrian politics continues to entertain and to edify. In this case, it offers a powerful vindication of the principle that everyone, even a radical like Rosencranz, is at heart as opportunistic as the best of us.

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