ONE THING that rarely gets written about the political far-right is how stupid it is, how bereft of creative ideas, how reliant on thick-necked cliches. Haven't we already digested the threat that Jews pose to 'our' money, immigrants to 'our' jobs, and Roma to everything else? Haven't we already plumbed the potential of these paltry apercus?
The other thing you seldom see in print is how powerful the dissenting majority can be when it wields the power it has accumulated from years of debating fools.
I first met this power as a fool myself, 18 years old and returning on a train with friends from a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game. A company had given out bars of soap at the match as a promotion, and I was using my bar to scribble rude graffiti on the back of the seat in front when a man behind me leaned forward and told me to stop.
"Why?" I asked, in a comedy of teenage guilt, the interrogative less a question than a squeal of alarm. "Because he told you to," said my oppressor's seat mate, both of them fixing their terrified prey with an intense Older Man's Look.
I shrank before that look then, and still would if I hadn't recently given up adolescent folly. It was a look that contained the truth we all knew - that while I might have been capable of more push-ups or more guzzled beer, those men and the people around them would kick the crap out of me if I kept scribbling, aided by the moral strength of being in the right.
That collective moral strength has been seen recently in France, where a surprisingly strong second-place election showing by immigrant-basher (and erstwhile soap-scribbler) Jean-Marie Le Pen has brought people flashing The Look out on the streets every day since the election results were known.
Even Hungary's right-wing PM Viktor Orbán has felt The Look, tumbling from power in recent Hungarian elections after foolishly scribbling Greater Hungary slogans across the facade of central European relations.
But the confrontation is being avoided in Slovakia, where people tend to look away rather than into the eyes of ignorance.
To give you an idea of the gulf between what people perceive as important, foreign news wires have been agog at news that Roma reporter Denisa Havrľová has been charged with assault on a public official after demanding to know why he wanted to see her 'hygiene certificate' before shaking her hand. The Slovak press has given the story minimal coverage, while The Slovak Spectator was told by an internet reader that "Gypsies are lazy a unhuman people" (sic). It's a pity The Look can't be flashed down web wires.
Then there's the recent destruction of 135 grave sites in the Košice Jewish cemetery, which again brought international media attention but little Slovak coverage, and certainly no public protests.
What does it take to get Slovak people in the streets? What racial travesty has to happen in this country before its overwhelming majority of kind, sensitive and intelligent citizens band together to overwhelm the bigots?
It's often said that people here have more to worry about (ie their standard of living) than their western counterparts, and that luxuries like ethnic tolerance can be attended to once the economy finds its feet. But this argument presupposes that wealth is the only important thing in Slovaks' lives, that racial harmony, justice and human rights are somehow frivolous concerns given the gravity of money matters. Is the nation really so morally impoverished?
The other argument that one hears is that Slovaks have no tradition of public protest, that a thousand years of foreign domination has taught people to keep their heads down and look after their own affairs.
But here again we strike a main element in the far-right's case - that history matters, and that our job is to revenge the injustices suffered by our forebears.
As anyone who has lived in Slovakia for some time knows, many otherwise intelligent people here are capable of the most arrant nonsense when it comes to history and race. Dislike of the Roma abounds, as does suspicion of the Hungarians. In destroying flats given to them by the state and resisting communist-era resettlement the Roma have bitten the hand that feeds, one is told, without regard to the obvious needs the Roma have to be helped to adjust to modern Slovak life. And including ethnic Hungarians in government, or giving them a share in administering their own affairs, evokes a high, choked tide of feeling based on a history that living Slovaks neither experienced nor often properly know.
One of the main implications of membership in the European Union is that small countries like Slovakia lose artificial definitions of nationhood - borders, oppression myths and ethnic solidarity. In the stead of these props we're offered the idea that we're all in this together, which is the slow-ripening fruit of centuries of needless human grief and waste.
The fact that Slovaks have not hit the streets to protest the Košice cemetery desecration, the Havrľová prosecution, last year's Sendrei killing and many other insults to modern democratic ideals is proof that EU membership remains form over substance in this country. People have yet to learn not only that collective protest silences the idiot right, but also that collective silence encourages the worst among us. They also have to learn that while every country's has its bigots, a nation is judged by how it responds to their bigotry.
29. Apr 2002 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson