Covidistan Annals VI: the op-ed German-language media deems too 'incendiary' to publish
Both 'legacy' and 'alternative' media refuse to publish the below piece: my submission has been ignored by the former, and embarrasingly labelled 'extremist' by the latter--now you get to be the judge
Author’s note: in mid-December, I wrote the below piece and submitted it to (Austrian) legacy media for publication. As you, my dear readers already know, I’m deeply concerned about the creeping totalitarianism rearing its ugly head in that particular part of Central Europe (again).
Yet, my piece was ignored by Austrian media. I then sent it to a German ‘alternative’ media whose main sales pitch has long been ‘we care about historical background’ and ‘other context’. Still, their response was even worse than radio silence: to try to overcome the deep divisions of family members, friends, and society as a whole, I propose to call for a new republic, based on a new constitution. Guess what, ‘alternative’ media deemed this ‘incendiary’ because, ‘apparently’ calling for a new constitution is ‘extremist’ as it’s a long-standing call ‘among certain Germany-based right-wing groups’, I was told via email.
Finally, I sent the below piece to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Switzerland’s NYT equivalent), for this paper has a reputation for valueing civic engagement and duties, as well as personal and societal responsibility. The response, needless to say, was the same as I received from other ‘legacy’ media: silence.
So, today I’m publishing the piece (in an English translation) here. Please use the comment section below to let me know if any of these allegations are true or the like.
If you’d like to (re-) publish this or post it elsewhere, please do so with the attribution of this website. For any other questions whatsoever, don’t hesitate to drop me an email at diefackel2punkt0(at)protonmail.com.
The 2nd Republic is Dead, Long Live the 4th Austrian Republic!
“It is a good country”, Ottokar von Hornek says about Austria in Franz Grillparzer’s play King Ottocar, His Rise and Fall. First performed in 1825, Grillparzer’s historical tragedy is a tall tale of pre-1848 yearnings for freedom, and after the World War II, it became an essential part of Austrian identity. “Where have you seen the like of it?”, Ottokar von Hornek asks rhetorically in his Hymn to Austria.
Indeed, what is becoming of my fatherland?
These days, Austria seems to be on everyone’s minds—but not in a good way. On the contrary, wherever one looks these days, tyranny rears its ugly head in Central Europe (again).
Proponents of the government’s anti-Covid measures and their opponents have moved ever farther away from each other: the room for open discussions has shrunk considerably over the past couple of months. Hate speech and discursive violence are becoming ever more widespread and are on the way to normalisation,
This can be seen, for instance, in an editorial by Gerald Mandlbauer. editor-in-chief of the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten. Published on 20 Nov. 2021, he expressed his unconditional—and uncritical—support of the government’s envisioned vaccination mandate like this: “The state has to use its authority. This realisation is finally dawning on those in power, albeit far too late. The lockdown is to be followed by compulsory vaccination for all—there is no other way.”
Towards the end, Mandlbauer goes all-in in his intolerant pseudo-Manichean worldview (my emphasis): “How does one deal with this in one’s own circle of relatives and acquaintances? With tolerance? With ignorance? With backtalk? If we accept their pseudo-scientific bullshit with a shrug of our shoulders, physics would have to be rewritten. If we tolerate them, it would mean that the other person might be a little bit correct after all.”
As an Austrian citizen, I am deeply worried about the health of the body politic.
As a parent, I am becoming ever more worried about our children’s future.
How much longer may still take until these and other words will be followed by deeds? Everyone who has seen the pictures from the streets of Vienna and other Austrian cities over the past weeks probably guesses correctly: not (much) longer.
“True freedom”, Chancellor Nehammer claimed, is “a privilege”
The current government—rather: Committee of Public Safety—fans the flames of discontent via the traditional, if ill-advised, primacy of party politics. Add to that the fact that Chancellor Nehammer, now in office, said on Nov. 21 that only vaccination would bring back the “true freedom…we enjoyed before the pandemic and which we perhaps valued far too little”, adding that it was, indeed “a privilege…to live in such freedom”.
Dishonest and incoherent statements by politicians are by no means specific to Austria, but it is precisely on the topic of compulsory vaccination that popular sentiment differ significantly. Politicians of almost all stripes are positioning themselves in front of the media and declare loudly that there is only one way out of the pandemic: vaccination against Covid-19. However, based on a study recently published in The Lancet, this is at least a questionable hypothesis. Its author, Prof. Günter Kampf of the University of Greifswald, Germany, concludes: “It appears to be grossly negligent to ignore the vaccinated population as a possible and relevant source of transmission when deciding about public health control measures.”
Given these circumstances, then, all the more caution is needed to avoid throwing out the baby of public health with the bathwater of the democratic republic.
With the passing of time, as well as geographical distance, the demands of a “Third Republic”, voiced by the right-wing Freedom Party’s Jörg Haider in the 1990s, looks like the late-afternoon children’s TV program. 20 years ago, every Thursday, several hundred protesters who self-identified as “good left-liberals”, marched through Vienna’s inner boroughs, demanding the resignation of the coalition government headed by Wolfgang Schüssel. For those who (like the author of these lines) counted then-education minister Elisabeth Gehrer among their neighbours, a police van parked around the corner on these evenings was “part of the game”. Several times, the protestors stood outside the entrance and loudly demanded entry into the building while, “mostly peacefully” pelting the door with eggs and rotten vegetables.
These days, by contrast, one reads of death threats against government ministers, police is ramping up security for critical infrastructure (official buildings, hospitals, etc.), and teachers as well as police officers who express their dissent with government policies. Anti-government sentiments are clearly on the rise, yet state officials react with either condescension or threaten disciplinary proceedings.
Where, pray tell, does this escalation in word and deed lead to?
After about a decade in Switzerland, I moved to Norway in summer 2020. Life here is quite different, but I propose the main difference is the Norwegian government’s more open and transparent way of dealing with Covid-19. Mind you, this was as true for the former right-of-centre government before parliamentary elections in September 2021 as it is today for new the left-of-centre government.
Don’t just take my word for it. Instead, take a look at the homepages of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and its Austrian counterpart (AGES), in particular, the openness with which the former reports hospitalisations, disease progression, and deaths in light of vaccination status speaks volumes.
If public health measures are introduced, this typically happens on the local or municipal levels. Generally, these are tightly circumscribed mandates whose expiration date is communicated in advance. Test or vaccination status checks by the army and police are unheard of here in Norway, which relieved me, so far, from the burden of explaining armed checkpoints to my daughters.
It is precisely the direct comparison that makes one wonder: in Norway, virtually everything is done to close kindergartens and (elementary) schools only as the very last measure. No-one, even in Austria, harbours any doubts about the negative impact of Covid-19 on our children. According to Paul Plener, MD, Head of the Children and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit at the Vienna General Hospital, suicidal incidents of adolescents have doubled over last year. While these tragic facts are known to decision-makers, they are also casually, and shamefully so, ignored.
A Country of Many (Bad) Qualities
Like many other nations, Austrians frequently refer to their country as “Absurdistan” to deal with the many incoherencies of everyday life, in particular in politics and public administration. Other colloquialisms include references to Franz Kafka, Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (3 vols., 1930-43), which, at least in German, is also the origin of “Kakania” as an ironic moniker to relate more recent experiences of the institutional absurdities to the defunct Austrian-Hungarian dual monarchy.
Cultural history and one’s imagination are but one side of the argument here. If one takes a look at the current crop of party politicians and their statements since Schallenberg’s resignation on 2 Dec. 2021, other, much darker thoughts soon emerge.
Here is, for instance, Jörg Leichtfried, deputy chairman of the Social Democrat parliamentary party, who denounced the government shakeup as “party-political horse-trading”. Even Austrian public broadcaster ORF criticised the cavalier treatment of the “chancellorship as a challenge trophy”, which left-liberal daily Der Standard denounced the ÖVP’s new ministerial appointees as chosen according to regional party-political sensitivities. Meanwhile, the ÖVP’s coalition partners from the Greens engage in self-congratulatory activities, exemplified by Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler’s statement to ORF: “once again, we Greens provide stability…for the country”.
What about the president in all of this? I’m glad you asked. Alexander van der Bellen (Greens) only, and weakly so, government ministers should “look not only at party-political spheres of power and influence”—before announcing himself ready to swear into office the third (!) government team since the last parliamentary elections in late 2019. The fact that the ÖVP’s latest crop of ministerial appointees was decided on last Friday behind closed doors barely registered.
Party-Politicking Trumps Care for Country and People
Despite these absurdities, constructive proposals to overcome the division of society continue to be in short supply. The right-wing Freedom Party’s “Plan B” (no vaccination mandates and an emphasis on early treatment) aside, there are only a handful of voices in the internally divided Social Democratic Party signalling their willingness to support elections “sometime next spring”.
Yet, the government will fight tooth and nail against new elections. Both the conservative ÖVP and the Greens can only lose at this point, and this is why coalition—portraying itself self-righteously as a “Committee of Public Safety”—will do its utmost to continue, come what may. The flip side of this coin, though, is that Nehammer’s junior partner now holds the upper hand, which does not bode well for the country. The Greens have a long history of lack of party discipline coupled with far-left radicalism with very limited popular support.
Therefore, as long as there are no significant exogenous changes, no movement in any direction other than the perpetuation of the Covid-induced numb acquiescence may be expected of the Nehammer-Kogler government. Keep that thought in mid and ponder the fact that the next regular elections are scheduled for autumn 2024. Neither the divisive sentiments among the polarised Austrian populace nor any issue, foreign or domestic, will (can) have any impact on policy formation.
This stance, while quite conventional for Austrian politics in recent decades, is on display, for all to see, with respect to the increasingly questionable insistence on compulsory vaccination as the one and only way out of the pandemic, as the government insists.
Here’s the Catch-22: New Elections Won’t Cut It (Anymore)
Like so many lesser political ambitions in the recent past, however, having another election is not good enough (anymore). During their time on the opposition bench in the 1990s, the Freedom Party has frequently decried the political stagnation and called for a “Third Republic”. Once they entered the government in 1999/2000, nothing materialised. Instead, an “Austria Convention”, a government-appointed assembly of notables who discussed constitutional reforms, was launched with great pomp in 2003, only to be quietly buried two years later. In that, it reflected, however farcically, Prince Metternich’s failure to reform the Austrian Empire in the decades prior to the Revolutions of 1848.
For decades, Austrian politicians and legal scholars speak of different constitutional realities drifting ever farther apart. Moreover, the country’s constitution—drafted by Hans Kelsen a century ago—and the democratic republic it signifies have increasingly diverged due to the multiple amendments and additions since 1945. EU accession in 1995 has since fuelled a large and growing discrepancy between popular sovereignty, governmental (in)accountability to parliament, and the now normalised implementation of directives, rules, and guidelines emanating from Brussels.
In view of the rising tide of regulations based on laws that have been amended several times, the Corona pandemic is like the proverbial straw that threatens to break the back of the camel that we democracy. The current “lockdown” measures are based on the 5th (!) Covid 19 Emergency Measures Ordinance of the Covid 19 Emergency Powers Act of 2020, which has been amended multiple times so far. And, more importantly, there appears to be no end in sight.
Elections are Needed—for a Constitutional Convention
How can these multiple divisions perhaps be overcome? We do live in extraordinary times, and as the saying goes, these call for extraordinary measures. New elections are certainly a good idea, and they should be held as soon as possible, but there is no need for another (hung) parliament. This moment calls for a Constitutional Convention.
There is no other way out of both the decades-long primacy of party interests in the face of the dislocations and distortions wrought by the Covid moment. Ideally, such a convention—or perhaps even a constituent national assembly—would consist of a representative cross-section of the total population: a majority of “common” people, that is, women and men, young and, all represented in proportion to their share of the total population.
State authorities have more than enough data about all of us, and it should be no significant problem to determine some, say, 350 deputies by means of a lottery (based on the assumption of about 25,000 people represented by 1 deputy each; total population of Austria: c. 8.9 million). If money is distributed for Corona mitigation, we have the means to spare for the people who shall draft a new constitution in the course of four to six months.
A New Republic is Needed—Now is the Time
In view of the current predicaments, I fail to see another way out before we will, in all likelihood, be overwhelmed by the consequences of the government’s reckless and divisive actions. Some may object that this is an experiment with unforeseeable risks, and those are probably quite correct, but if history teaches us anything, the entirely predictable risks of simply trying to continue until 2024 or beyond are undoubtedly much greater.
I am very well aware that this proposal will not go down well with the members of the party-political caste. Yet, as even the briefest accounting of their activities and “successes” of the last years and decades suggests, support for such an undertaking seems to be the politicians’ only—and probably last—chance to actually serve the population and the country.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s pithy dictum: there are no guarantees of success, yet I fail to see a better way to overcome the divisions in our society. Right now, the fault lines run right through our families and social circles, which is far more dangerous than any political experiment of this kind, to say the least.
Thus, let us dare to take back our own responsibilities as citizens.