The US-American writer J.S. Marcus posesses “a narrative style fit for the waning years of this (read: the last) tired century”; in his last book, he “made a haunting world come alive”. I haven’t read his latest book “The Captain’s Fire”, but this description sounds like it does indeed qualify Marcus to write about Austrian politics – waning, tired, haunting, but (in some senses of the word) alive. The latest issue of the New York Review of Books contains Marcus’ review of two important books in this area: the English translation of (parts of) former Socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky’s (1911-1990) memoirs (“The Struggle for a Democratic Austria: Bruno Kreisky on Peace and Social Justice”), and profil journalist Christa Zöchling’s book about Jörg Haider (1950-), “Haider: Licht und Schatten einer Karriere”. This alone is astonishing enough because the New York Review only rarely, if ever, reviews books published in languages other than English. Marcus’ review does not purport to be a profound analysis, not another one of these “and now I’ll tell you what’s REALLY going on”
articles, but gives a highly informative, remarkably even-handed account of recent events, covering the so-called “EU-sanctions” as well as the so-called “Wende”(“turnaround”) in Austrian government. [As an aside: One of the benefits of living in present-day Austria is that you get to prefix a lot of political expressions with “so-called” now choice of vocabulary has become a highly contested area, in fact so contested that discussions of proper language often dominate over discussions of proper politics.] Marcus steers clear of obvious cliches and all too easy answers, like that all present evil is due to the return of a suppressed Nazi past, and takes it upon himself to touch upon rather messy areas of Austria’s history, like the 30s’ political environment whose internal tensions have never been properly addressed after WWII. Note that the People’s Party still has a portrait of Austro-fascist Engelbert Dollfuß hanging at the walls of its headquarters, and hardly anyone seems to view this particular instance of symbolic continuity particularly troubling. However, one thing is missing from Marcus’ account – one that is absolutely crucial:
The media. Austria’s media concentration is famously rivalled only by that of Albania, and has been ever since I can remember. Recent deals created a gigantic conglomerate that some have argued practically makes freedom of press an illusion and one that will, by the way, crucially affect “profil”. Politicians bow down in front of Hans Dichand’s tabloid “Kronen Zeitung” with an elasticity that makes the adjective “spineless” appear to be a euphemism. Watching news broadcasts on Austria’s public television channels – there is, as yet, no private TV in Austria, and when there will be, it is likely to turn out as Dichand as Dichand can be – requires similar talents as reading Prawda during cold war times: Political journalism is here not about what is being said, or how, but about what remains unsaid and can only be understood by those properly initiated in The Ritual. Who is not invited to discussion panels, what questions are not asked by journalists – that is what matters, not presented content, not discussed facts. Such an environment quite obviously breeds paranoia, and I don’t think it is a coincidence in this regard that many voices heard in the so-called “Widerstand” (“resistance”) against the present government are notable for their hysterical tones, their constant fear of something dark looming behind apparent political reality, rather than for their strength of argument and analysis, or sheer political vitality.
Final observation: Where journalistic freedom may not yet be an illusion in terms of the hard facts, journalistic independence is already an illusion in terms of discourse. Upon comparing the way in which German public TV stations interview politicians with interviews broadcast in Austria’s ORF it once occured to me that, while German journalists generally tend to phrase questions based on their own journalistic considerations, their Austrian counterparts operate strictly within the framework of rhetorical “Proporz” (the frame of thought where every facet of life is penetrated by party memership, from getting a job to having an opinion) – criticism is voiced not from an independent journalistic viewpoint, but from the viewpoint of the respective political opponent (“your political enemies COULD object that …”). Journalists willingly step into the shoes of sparring partners rather than at least aiming at the job of the umpire, thereby perpetuating political fistfights instead of viewing them from a distance. Which reminds me of the old woman who, at a discussion about the Holocaust, reacted to accusations of anti-semitism with the astonishing declaration “well, not everyone can be a semite”. – Have a nice day and keep on prawding.