Richard North, 04/07/2005  

Some of our readers seem to think that “Sir” Bob Geldof has been enormously successful but when pushed all we can agree on is that he is good at getting publicity for himself and whatever idiotic cause he may be sponsoring. By definition, even those who have rather soulfully watched the week-end extravaganza must agree, none of those causes will be sensible or well argued.

Having gone from a tearful “We must have another go, even if the governments have not changed much” to “What do the critics want – see starving children every night on TV?”, he ended up with “I don’t listen to critics, they are all stupid.” Since many of the critics were explaining carefully about the politics and economics as well as the governance of those African countries that are soooooo dear to “Sir” Bob’s heart, that sort of attitude argues a certain lack of rational thought. So, no, I don’t think he will take up the eurosceptic or the free-market cause.

The problem with those cause that in order to succeed, they need to be argued through. They are not easily susceptible to sloganization.

“Forward into the bright future.” “Make Poverty History.” How can we rival the triteness and sparkliness of those sentences?

We can respond to them. I remember translating a poem by Nizametdin Akhmetov, who had spent half his life (he was 38 at the time) in Soviet camps, prisons and psychiatric hospitals. His work was very powerful and one poem began with the line: “I spit upon the bright future”. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

We can also call on somebody or other to “make stupidity history” or to “make corruption history”. But the devil has the best slogans these days. (The last good one was that produced by some of the Russian radicals about the Polish Revolutionaries of 1861. Alexander Herzen and others drank “To your freedom and ours”.)

Which brings me to the main point. The most successful sloganeer of the last quarter of the twentieth century was Mikhail Gorbachev, quondam Secretary General of the CPSU.

Of course, like “Sir” Bob he succeeded in nothing that he was supposed to achieve. But he got a great deal of publicity. In fact, some rather weak-minded journalists and conference organizers still run to Mr Gorbachev for a comment or analysis in connection with various developments in the world that has long ago passed him by.

His greatest achievements were the popularization of two words: glasnost (openness, publicity) and perestroika (transformation, reconstruction). These two were going to save the Soviet Union and make it into a forward-looking, radically new, reformist economy. (You may have heard something similar recently.)

Actually, in the first place the solution was going to be tri-partite. The economy was going to be speeded up (uskoreniye), to achieve which, one needed a reconstruction (perestroika), which did not really come about unless there was an open discussion (glasnost). Makes sense, when you think about it. The problem was the initials. It did not take the Moscow wags long to work out that these spelled GPU, the second name of the Soviet secret police, that had started off as the Cheka.

Uskoreniye was not really happening, anyway, so the word was quietly dropped. Glasnost and perestroika have stayed with us, achieving little of what Gorbachev had intended. Those of us who said the system was unreformable and would either go on as is or collapse turned out to be right, though no apology has been heard.

So much about the language and the concepts the European Union and its minions use remind one of the “wooden language” of the USSR. Take this question of creating endless systems to overtake the United States. Did we not hear that and threats to bury it from Soviet leaders from Khrushchev onwards?

At least, we do not quite have to go along with the old Soviet joke: “By all means, let’s catch up with the Americans but we mustn’t think of overtaking them. If we do, they will see that our pants have holes in them.”

Our pants may be all right but the Lisbon Agenda has numerous holes in it. In fact, there is precious little material left, what with the holes and the darning as well as the darning on the darning.

The EU, Lisbonization or whatever, is about as successful at overtaking the more vibrant economies of the world as the Soviet Union was. So, we shall console ourselves with the same runner-up prize: space exploration for no good purpose.

Meanwhile, we have to have our own slogans and our catchwords. Tony Blair has helpfully provided us with the meaningless repetition of modernization as our own form of perestroika, it being impossible to achieve Lisbonization (uskoreniye) but can we achieve modernization without transparency (glasnost).

MLT, perhaps? I think we’ve got it. By George we’ve got it.

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