My Forbes post on the threat to democracy in the EU touched a nerve. Well, several nerves, actually. Some people regarded my invocation of the Prague Spring as insulting to the people who suffered under Soviet oppression: others objected to my comparison of the benevolent EU with the evil USSR: and a few complained that I had presented the Syriza government as "martyrs", when they are nothing of the kind. And lots of Portuguese called me out for misrepresenting how their parliamentary democracy works.
First, let me deal with the Portuguese. I'm not going to discuss the Portuguese semi-presidential political system, here or anywhere else. I don't claim to be an expert on the political system of my own country, let alone someone else's. In the Forbes post, I was careful not to suggest that the Portuguese President had exceeded his constitutional authority. I criticised his words, not his actions.
Unfortunately it appears that my post, like others on similar lines, was used in support of the "Portugal Coup" protests. I wasn't immediately aware of this. But when I found out, I put a comment on the post making it clear that I do not think describing the President's actions as in any sense a "coup" is remotely accurate or helpful.
Nor does my post support the "Portugal Coup" idea. I interpreted the President's remarks as intended to ward off a possible "coup" from Brussels/Frankfurt along the lines of that experienced by Greece. That was the WHOLE POINT of the post.
Now for the rest. Some people were clearly upset by my comparison of the EU and the USSR. I am genuinely sorry if what I wrote caused offence. But we cannot have taboos in history, if we are to learn from it.
On the BBC's Sunday Politics programme yesterday, Ken Livingstone pointed out that the USSR under Stalin grew faster than any country in history. Andrew Neil riposted with "But what about the 25m people who died?" That is not a counter-argument. It is possible both to pursue policies that create fast growth and full employment, and to commit genocide. Both Hitler and Stalin did this. It is incumbent upon us to learn from what they did RIGHT, as well as the terrible wrongs they committed. We are the poorer if we refuse to look, unflinchingly, at the whole picture.
"Why is unemployment so high in your country?" my young Soviet friends asked. To them, unemployment was a terrible evil. But to me, child of the West, who hadn't yet realised what such high unemployment would come to mean for me, the restrictions on free movement of people, the shortages of goods in Soviet shops, and the very existence of "beriozka shops" that only those with access to Western currency could use, were the real evil.
In the years after my visit to the USSR, I learned - the hard way - that my Soviet friends were right. Widespread involuntary unemployment, particularly among the young, IS a terrible evil. It is an evil every bit as great as the inflation that we in the West have learned to fear. Young people never recover from unemployment at the very start of their working lives. It wrecks their careers, and destroys their hope and their self-esteem.
But the EU does not seem to know this. Despite unemployment across the EU averaging over 10%, and youth unemployment double that (and far higher in some countries), it remains fixated on the goal of "fiscal responsibility", believing that if governments balance their budgets and get out of the way of capitalist enterprise, employment will magically return. In time, it probably will.....but by then an entire generation will have been scarred for life.
So, what of the crushing of the Prague Spring? It was brutal, yes. As was Tiananmen Square in China. For sure, the EU has not descended to those depths. Indeed it cannot. It does not have an army, and neither does its largest and most dominant member state. Nor would there be support from other member states for use of military force against a member state. Memories of events like the Prague Spring, the Hungarian uprising and similar episodes involving countries that have since become EU member states, help to make it very unlikely that military force would be used to coerce a government into toeing the EU party line. We do not wish to be seen to behave like those we regard as unremittingly evil.
But we do not see our own evils. Nor do we see the good in those we regard as wholly evil. Our view is polarised: "we" are all good, "they" are all evil. Yet both "we" and "they"are human, and humans are capable of both good and evil. Indeed, what one human regards as "evil", another may regard as "good". We may regard the rape of Yazidi girls by ISIS soldiers as evil: we may be horrified by reports of ISIS fighters praying before committing rape: but in the ISIS ideology, raping an infidel girl is a good action. Brutality is not necessarily regarded as evil.
Unemployment is brutal, and youth unemployment particularly so. But in the EU, even very high unemployment - while perhaps not seen as a good thing - is regarded as preferable to inflation and debt default. There is no objective justification for such a view. It is entirely ideological.
All humans have the propensity to be dazzled by ideology and unable to see the evil that it brings. All of us are capable of mistreating other humans in pursuit of ideological goals. When the preservation of an ideal, or adherence to a set of rules, becomes more important than the welfare of people, brutality towards those who challenge the ideal or break the rules - or simply are not "one of us" - becomes inevitable. It matters not whether the goal is a socialist one-party state, a capitalist free market economy or an Islamic Caliphate: if the price for achieving it is the lives, hopes and wellbeing of others, it is a price too high to pay.
So although I regret that some people were upset by it, I will not apologise for comparing the breaking of Greece to the Prague Spring. For me, the similarities are significant. There is more than one way of forcing people to toe the party line. Brutality takes many forms.
The Syriza government made many mistakes, but then so did the government of Alexander Dubcek: it is a measure of how polarised our view has become that we see Dubcek as some kind of saint, martyred by the evil Warsaw Pact for daring to step out of line. This is entirely wrong: Dubcek was no saint, and he remained in power for some time after the Prague Spring. Similarly, it is wrong to regard Alexis Tsipras as an innocent victim. But that does not excuse the behaviour of the EU.
I would not want to see anyone choose a path that leads to debt default and economic collapse. But I defend absolutely the democratic right of the people of a country to make that disastrous choice. Today, that right is being systematically denied in the Eurozone, through the enforcement of tight fiscal rules backed up by threat of sanctions and fines. In some countries, governments now have little freedom to determine even fine details of tax and spending plans: everything is "overseen" by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. This is not democracy.
The EU claims to be "democratic", but claiming democracy does not make it reality. After all, every Marxist-Leninist totalitarian state in history has claimed to be democratic. When the democratic right of people to choose their own path is denied through fear of retribution if they make the "wrong" choice, we are on the road to totalitarianism. That is the road down which the EU is now travelling.
The fallout from the Greek crisis threatens European democracy - Forbes
The dangers of historical taboos
A worse crime?
The truth about evil - John Gray
Image: Red Square, Moscow, in 1982 - the year I went there.