“I don’t think that law is the solution. The solution is always education.” – Interview with Benny Brunner (part II)

19 octombrie 2015

After talking about his most recent movie, The Erpatak Model, the discussion naturally went to comparing Romania with the rest of Europe. Benny’s interest in Romania has to do with the fact that he was born in Romania, in Bârlad, a small town from the North-Eastern part of the country. So we’ve tried to understand why Romania has no far-right political movement right now and what would be some possible explanations for that. We’ve ended talking about Romanian mayors, so we went back to the point where all started: mayors in Central-Eastern Europe.

Benny Brunner @ Visions du Reel

Iosif Prodan: As I’m looking to this mayor guy of yours from Romania’s point of view, he looks very exotic, almost like a clown if we look at his clothes and the way he acts publicly.

Benny Brunner: Yes, most of the people are using this term – clown – to talk about him.

IP: And the thing is that there is this rise of the far-right movement all across the Europe, while in Romania it’s decreasing almost to extinction.

BB: Then you’re the exception I think, in Europe. Seriously. If elections will take place tomorrow in Holland, the party to get the most votes would be the fascist one ruled by Geert Wilders. The same goes for Denmark, I’m not sure about the Front National in France, might be also the case in Italy. Yeah, I think the liberal idea of principles on which EU is based on… I think we’re conducting a lose battle, we’re fighting while retreating.

IP: In Romania it was approved, a few months ago, this law that is very harsh on nationalist and fascist ideas or behaviors. Could this be a way to put up against the rise of extremism?

BB: On one hand, such harsh laws really curbes free speech, no doubt about this. It seems to be effective here, in Romania. But I was just walking in Sibiu the other day and I noticed the office of PRM (n.r. Great Romania Party, former nationalistic party now almost extinct).

IP: I saw that as well, but it’s just a relic, this party doesn’t really exist anymore.

BB: Then, you have to weigh what principle you sacrifice, which core values you sacrifice in order to have an efficient way to combat the spread of this far-right, fascist ideas. If you take Chomsky’s position on the right of a neo-Nazi to deny the Holocaust, for example – that’s a limitation of expressing his views, he says. There was a case a while ago, I think 6-8 years ago, in France with a big headline news all over the place, and Chomsky strongly defended the rights of these guys to express their views. But I think you also have to look per each country’s case, because countries that have more stable, deep-rooted democratic institutions maybe they can afford it more than countries that are more fragile with newer or less implication or existence of the civil society. What is the local criticism of these measures here in Romania?

IP: Yes, this last law that was passed 2-3 months ago was highly criticised, and not mainly from the far-right but also it had to do with this presumably limitation of the free speech. We had some important writers back in the ‘30s who had a strong contribution to the rise of the far-right and now it’s somehow prohibited to publicly praise their biography. And besides this, some other criticism would come from this attack to our identity and renowned literary valued writers. Now things got calmed down but the discussions might erupt again with the first case of conviction or imprisonment that will be done under this law for praising fascism, for example.

BB: To praise fascism is one thing, and actually discussing it in a civilized way is another. Or maybe in academic way if you want to research it.

IP: The law specifically says that if you want to research it for educational purposes you’re totally allowed to.

BB: Well, there is this very good example of Celine, the french writer, with The End of Night – bloody fascist! But I think we can separate between research and appraisal. So if I want to write an article after reading the book and let’s say I really liked it and I give a bit of a context with all the fascist ideas, can I write about it?

IP: Yes, as long as you don’t praise the fascist ideas.

BB: So not to propagate them. I don’t want to judge without knowing the exact stuff here, but do you think that the decline of the far-right here is due to this law or they just run out of steam?

IP: Well, it’s actually both, but this specific law that was approved a few months ago has its own history. It was first approved back in the early 2000s when the main thing was to incriminate the denial of the Holocaust and that was a first big problem for the nationalistic groups. Until that moment we had far-right parties in the Parliament, a nationalistic candidate to run in the final election for the President in 2000 etc. And now, with this second law that would complete the previous one, it’s almost impossible to have far-right – fascist public opinions without being prosecuted and convicted.

BB: Which government legislated this?

IP: The first law was passed by the social-democrats who are the former communists, and the second one was passed also by them, but it’s a project coming from the liberals and it was assumed by Klaus Johannis, the actual president, which had the support of the liberals in the elections.

BB: But the first law, the one that would make denial of the Holocaust a criminal offence was it initiated internally or it was a jewish-american organization to do it?

IP: There was a big talk about that. The far-right organizations were accusing Soroș of jewish propaganda, „we have our own country and we should do whatever we think”. But there was, of course, a pressure coming from Washington. The good thing is that we’ve accepted that in time. But again, do you think that legally incriminating fascist ideas would solve this general issue that Europe has?

BB: Not really, I don’t think that law is the solution. The solution is always education. You must educate your people about the past, to have them know what happened in the true history, not the re-written one. You have to teach that there are many narratives, it’s better than letting people know that there is only one interpretation. I’ve been looking at the Germans, they really repent and that really strengthened the democracy. The Germans combat the extremist parties with a very high entry percentage for the Parliament – 5%, which is huge.

IP: That’s also the case here in Romania, we have 5%.


Mayor Mihály Zoltán Orosz in one of his regular oufits

BB: Well I think that’s great, although there is a natural criticism of this, that huge amounts of population are not represented.

IP: Indeed, that’s also the main criticism of this entry level here because you have smaller parties that never get the chance to go in the Parliament. But it also worked in keeping out the far-right out of it.

BB: I think for Romania is good, and for Germany is also good. So I think also that it’s good to have this combination of the law and the entry level to get into the Parliament. Yes, a lot of people are left out, but it’s working. Maybe the bigger parties should open the door a little bit for more moderate groups.

IP: For example in Romania we don’t have greens in the Parliament, we never had actually, or pure leftists, like a real socialist party. The actual social-democrats have so many center-right policies that you couldn’t consider them as left.

BB: But are the social-democrats going to lose in the next elections?

IP: Yes, very probably they will. And they will also lose a lot of local elections.

BB: Because of the scandals that are unveiling right now.

IP: That’s right, a lot of social-democrat mayors are being detained or suspended from their positions because of corruption cases. The mayor of Bucharest was caught while taking money that were marked with “bribe”. But the perverse part is that a few hours before that he was offering an interview for a TV station where he would say that well, not all the mayors are corrupt, there are some honorable individuals among them – of course, he was pointing out to himself, but, you know, hypocrisy is a mild word for this.

BB: And he’s still in the office?

IP: No, he’s imprisoned. The process hasn’t started yet, but while the prosecutors are building the case his rights are restricted.

BB: So all these mayors that had corruption issues are social-democrats?

IP: Most of them, some are liberal as well, but not as many as the social-democrats.

BB: In Holland they just passed a few days ago a law that makes all budgets – income and spending – of the local authorities, open. All of them. You can see anything that comes in and out: who’s got paid, how much, total transparency. There was an NGO that is called Open Data that pushed this law into the Parliament.

IP: But were there any big corruption scandals in the Netherlands lately?

BB: In the past, when the father of the former queen abdicated and his son took over, so her father got huge kickbacks from Lockheed, it was like 40 years ago. But there is a lot of corruption – not in-your face, though – everywhere. Where you have people there is corruption. Power corrupts; a lot of power corrupts a lot. But what about Johannis? Is he “clean”?

IP: Well… we just find out a month ago that he might be involved in a case of faking inheritance documents from which he got several buildings and flats in Sibiu. His wife seems to be more involved than he is and that’s quite strange because he definitely doesn’t look like a crook.

BB: Someone told me that when he was a mayor here in Sibiu, his nickname was “The Dictator”.

IP: Never heard of that. What he was known for, though, in all the country, was the high percentage of votes he got in all the local elections, around 70-80%. But since we’re talking about mayors again, I was willing to tell you about the mayor from my hometown, he is suspended now for this disgraceful case he got into – he was spying on his mistress using the local police.

BB: (smiling) Ah, that’s nothing, in Israel there was a similar case with a mayor that named a street after his mistress. There was a huge scandal on that!

*You can read the first part of the interview HERE

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