Kevin Sullivan wins 2022 Hubert Butler Essay Prize for a work filled with hope

Read the winning essay: In dark times, what can be done to resist the abuse of political power?

The international Hubert Butler Essay Prize 2022, which encourages the art of essay-writing across Europe, has been awarded to Kevin Sullivan for his essay, in response to the question ‘In dark times, what can be done to resist the abuse of political power?’

The actor Fiona Shaw announced the prize as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. The prize, founded by Jeremy O’Sullivan, reflects Butler’s interest in the common ground between the European nation states that emerged after the first World War; his concern with the position of religious and ethnic minorities; his life and writings as an encapsulation of the mantra ‘Think globally, act locally’; the importance of the individual conscience; and his work with refugees.

The judges were Roy Foster (chair), Catriona Crowe, Nichola Grene, Eva Hoffman and Barbara Haus Schwepcke.

Foster said:“‘Dark times’ indeed sums up the state of the world in 2022, and Kevin Sullivan’s essay decisively confronts the abuse of political power which is all around us. There is something very Butlerian in the way he draws on his own experience of political and cultural life in eastern Europe, and also in his analysis of the complicated ways that artists and intellectuals reckon with an authoritarian zeitgeist. His perspective considers the world at its widest, and the effort to ‘live in truth’ at a time when lies are widely peddled and wealth inequality dominates.

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“This is a writer who looks honestly at his own illusions, cherished at a brighter time. But he also suggests that there is still hope for a consensus based on reason and ethics, facing up to the ominous political and ecological portents around us. The judges of the HBEP unanimously agreed to award his essay the 2022 Prize for its forceful and elegant style, its trenchant and wide-ranging conclusions, and its ability to express complex problems with a clarity that does not sacrifice subtlety.”

Sullivan said, “Hubert Butler’s lifelong practice of engaging with ideas on his own terms and speaking out even when silence would have been the easier and more comfortable option served as a powerful antidote to misguided assumptions that were prevalent during his lifetime. His legacy of common sense, compassion and intellectual rigour is still very much needed. It is an honour to have been awarded this prize.”

John Banville, patron of the prize, said, “Kevin Sullivan’s finely honed essay is a timely reminder that even in the world’s bleakest moments - and the outlook these days is bleak indeed - there are causes for hope, and timely causes to be championed.”

Kevin Sullivan worked as a journalist in Asia for more than a decade, reporting from Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore, and other places. In 1991, he began covering the war in the former Yugoslavia. After being seriously wounded in a land-mine explosion in Bosnia in 1993, he wrote an early draft of The Longest Winter, a novel set in Sarajevo, which was published by Bonnier in 2016. He has worked in Sarajevo and The Hague with the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the International Commission on Missing Persons. His other novels include Out of the West, published by Armida Books in 2014, and The Figure in the Photograph and The Art of the Assassin, published by Allison & Busby in 2020 and 2021. Kevin and his wife, the writer and translator Marija Fekete Sullivan, live in Sarajevo.

Hubert Butler was born in Kilkenny in 1900, and he travelled extensively throughout Europe during his life. With his wife, Peggy, he founded the Kilkenny Lectures to encourage dialogue between the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic, and he found international recognition in his eighties for his essay collections Escape from the Anthill, The Children of Drancy, and Grandmother and Wolfe Tone.

In dark times, what can be done to resist the abuse of political power?

By Kevin Sullivan

There is a perennial temptation to attribute disproportionate significance to the present. Doorstep evangelists are fond of talking up the particularly noteworthy wickedness of today and warning that the End Times are surely upon us. Disagreeable stridency aside, it’s possible these doomsayers may be onto something: we do appear to be moving through a period of certifiable gloom. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resurrected the sight of shell-shattered cities in Europe barely a generation after the carnage in former Yugoslavia prompted heartfelt invocations of Never Again. The conflicts in Syria and Yemen, like the slaughter in Central Africa in the 1990s, have delivered a continuous stream of atrocity. Meanwhile, choked by the detritus of unrestrained industrial exploitation, the planet is afflicted by fire and flood.

Darkness is visible.

Yet, the picture is always mixed. The Swinging Sixties, celebrated as an era of cultural innovation and sexual revolution, were overshadowed by the prospect of nuclear war. We think about the Beatles now, but at the time the Bomb loomed equally large. Whether an age is judged to be one of anxiety or of opportunity depends on how exclusively you choose to look at it.

The Nobel Prize winning writer Ivo Andrić navigated very dark times indeed. As Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Germany from 1939 to 1941, he pursued a course that was prudent to the maximum degree while attempting to salvage a modicum of principle in the face of Nazi aggression. After spending the war in isolation (good for the literary impulse, as he wrote his two most famous works while under virtual house arrest) he became a diffident but obliging public figure in the ideologically hidebound regime of Marshal Tito. Visiting Andrić's flat (now a museum) in Belgrade, you do get the impression that this champion of the individual conscience had rather well-honed survival skills. Roomy and conveniently close to Parliament, the apartment is a dated but indisputably dignified des res. When Andrić articulated resistance to the abuse of power, whether by fascists or communists, in the dark times of the mid-20th century, he did it rather carefully.

The other great Yugoslav writer of the period, Meša Selimović, had an equally complicated relationship with the authoritarian zeitgeist. Though a political commissar with Tito’s army (showing none of the wartime prevarication of the diplomat Andrić), Selimović failed to save his own brother (executed by a Partisan firing squad on a dubious charge) from revolutionary justice. Thereafter, in several remarkable novels, Selimović obliquely examined the limitations of arbitrary rule and the abuse perpetrated by those in (often quite junior) positions of power. He famously noted that “foolish men remain free if they know how to hide their folly, and clever ones are locked away if they show their cleverness.” A somewhat curmudgeonly figure in post-war Yugoslavia, Selimović avoided being locked away.

Those of us who live in societies where speaking freely is the norm should be leery about judging people whose speech is circumscribed by the threat of prison or worse. In dark times, it may be sensible to maintain freedom of action in order to continue resistance. Andrić and Selimović no doubt understood the need to choose one’s battles.

Since the start of the Covid pandemic, sensible public health measures have been misrepresented in dark conspiratorial corners of the public square as an abuse of power. People who insist on their right to spread disease tend to be unfamiliar with arguments balancing individual liberty with the common good. The very strength of their conviction is the opposite of Socrates’ dictum that knowledge of one’s own ignorance is the root of wisdom. Yet, anti-vaxxers, like doorstep evangelists, may have stumbled on an element of truth. People in positions of authority have used the pandemic as a convenient excuse for incompetence and worse – not the health officials bravely battling mass infection with mask mandates and inoculation programs, but the charlatans who glibly try to pass off any problem of their own making as an unfortunate consequence of the pandemic. Faced with popular discontent over economic mismanagement (discontent shared by all of the country’s diverse communities) the ruling Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka offered an unprepossessing but illuminating example of this by brazenly insisting that the country’s collapse was caused by Covid rather than kleptocracy.

The pandemic is now being cited as a significant contributory factor to the economic turbulence that credible analysts (as well as habitual prophets of doom) believe may be imminent, yet the fault lines in the global economy – characterised by ecological degradation and the persistence of poverty – have been visible for a long time, and the pandemic is more likely a symptom than a cause.

Faced with challenges on this global scale, there is something to be said for withdrawing – literally as well as metaphorically – from the fray and opting to tend one’s garden, in the manner of Voltaire’s ecologically prescient Candide. And there is also the musical (as opposed to the horticultural) path. Argentinian singer Victor Heredia confronted military rule in the 1970s with an anthem of simple but courageous defiance that resonates today: Todavia, cantamos.

Vaclav Havel framed resistance to the abuse of power in terms of personal integrity. In order to function, totalitarian regimes must wage a war of attrition against individual integrity: the modest moral compromises made by each citizen diminish the capacity of that citizen to resist. When an individual chooses “to live in truth”, rejecting even the smallest compromise, the system is challenged at its core. Each assertion of integrity is significant. Swept into the presidency on a populist (but not formally democratic) tide, Havel began his TV address to the nation on New Year’s Day 1990 with the observation that, “I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.” Truth – including inconvenient truth – was to be the touchstone of the Velvet Revolution.

Havel’s absurdist plays dissect the mayhem caused by efforts to organise society on the basis of any hermetically sealed ideology. Such ideologies are antithetical to the skein of anarchy that runs through human nature; ideologues cannot accommodate things like intuition and flights of irrational fancy. Havel’s response as a dramatist was to expose the disruptive, often farcical anomalies of the system imposed on Czechoslovakia before 1968 and then with even greater ferocity after the crushing of the Prague Spring. The playwright’s critique is potent because it short-circuits fear through irreverence.

Chaos is key to understanding the capacity of art to resist the abuse of power. Totalitarians have a tendency to think in straight lines: they distrust the avant-garde; they look askance at the abstract. They don’t like long hair and loud music either. As Havel notes in The Art of the Powerless, the climate of resistance in which Charter 77, one of the engines of dissent that eventually toppled totalitarianism in Central Europe, emerged “was not the product of any immediate political event. That climate was created by the trial of some young musicians associated with a rock group called ‘The Plastic People of the Universe’. Their trial was not a confrontation of two differing political forces or conceptions, but two differing conceptions of life.” Listening to the Plastic People today, it’s not unreasonable to question how musically or aesthetically transgressive they or their influences in the broader world of sixties and seventies psychedelia really were – yet the social and political legacy of these Czech mop-tops has been lasting, positive and profound.

The prosecution of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for drug possession in 1967, prompting The Times to ask “who breaks a butterfly on a wheel” is a comparable example of a sclerotic establishment responding to the shock of the new with sledgehammer intolerance – and losing the argument in the end. In the same way, the response of the authorities in Russia to the provocation of Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” is a telling post-communist example of the terror that can be inspired among the self-righteous (and powerful) by the antics of kids with guitars. Poets, it seems (and punk rockers) really are the unelected legislators of humanity.

Comedians, too. The emergence of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, not only as the president of Ukraine but as a charismatic leader with the capacity to articulate fundamental truths, may be seen as part of a pattern. Zelenskyy’s origins as a TV celebrity are central to his popular and political significance. There is about po-faced Vladimir Putin an indisputable dourness – this is not a man who, in any obvious way, thrives on merry banter. Zelensky, by contrast, has made a living out of jokes. History may well favour the comedian.

There are abuses of power and there are perceived abuses of power – it is important to resist real abuses not imaginary ones. If you do stick your head above the parapet, then do so for a useful purpose, not – as one might unkindly say of the dimmest anti-vaxxer – for no sane purpose at all. Those who abuse power successfully (at least in their own terms), often do so by getting the rest of us to look in the opposite direction. In the United States the “culture wars” of the last quarter of a century have consumed the energy and arguments of television pundits (and the sort of evangelical populists who are fond of talking about End Times) to the point where substantive political debate has been drowned out by reactive (and often hysterical) indignation. At the same time, the political establishment has become systematically and dangerously disconnected from the mass of citizens – and the difference between the country’s rich and poor has widened from a gap to a chasm. Today, one percent of Americans rake in around a quarter of all income. The last time wealth disparity reached this level was 1929. If there’s a historical pattern here, it isn’t a good one.

The tectonic social and economic shifts of the last two decades have not been haphazard. Determined and wealthy individuals have channelled resources to politicians who have championed wealth acquisition over wealth distribution, and individual assertiveness over the common good. Toxic self-interest has been injected into the body politic.

Even rich people think this is wrong. Patriotic Millionaires, a US advocacy group which boasts a multinational (and well-heeled) membership, has proposed that an annual levy of just two or three percent on the assets of the 119,000 wealthiest people in Britain would fundamentally recalibrate the fiscal system – so that those living on regular incomes wouldn’t have to pay higher taxes, and billions of pounds in additional revenue could be pumped into health and education for the benefit of all. This is an idea whose time might yet come, a corrective to the free-market absolutism that emerged at the end of the last century.

The war in Ukraine is being fought by two countries that have been through the shock therapy of economic liberalization. Oligarchic Russia hasn’t been able to turn vast reserves of fossil fuel into sustained or shared prosperity, while Ukraine hasn’t been able to eradicate the corruption that attended mass privatization thirty years ago – indeed, as an entertainer, President Zelensky rose to prominence by advertising this fact. But if Ukraine and Russia can be cited as victims of economic policies that were either inexpertly implemented or fundamentally flawed, the United States, where space exploration has been taken over by tycoons whose wealth exceeds that of many countries, can be seen as a victim too. Also experiencing serious collateral damage are European states where the post-war consensus of collective and incremental betterment has been assailed by the ascendancy of profit on one hand and toxic nationalism on the other (with politicians in Croatia, Hungary and Poland leading the charge). Indeed, a bleak but inescapable conclusion to be drawn from recent history suggests that the loudest champions of liberty are often the keenest proponents of measures that limit public accountability and arbitrarily define the common good.

Visiting Moscow two decades ago I was irrationally gratified to find that my Citibank card worked at a cash machine in the Kremlin. The practical benefits of globalisation were, for me, encapsulated in that transaction. At the time, I was a small cog in an effort to bring the benefits of the free market to countries in the Western Balkans. I believed, like Francis Fukuyama and the many other optimistic apostles of a new and free global dispensation, that liberal democracy and its concomitant financial provisions were on the right side of history. I had seen the wrong side, witnessing at first hand the barbarous chauvinism that presented itself in parts of the former Eastern Blok as the antidote to decades of communist oppression. I recognised the nonsense and the moral bankruptcy of nationalism when I watched Sarajevo’s main hospital being shelled by men (and some women) in the hills who had latched onto a simplistic doctrine of communal chauvinism as though it were the new gospel. Yet, a few years later, I preached a competing gospel, that all ships would rise, that the market would cement democracy and generate a tsunami of prosperity.

The fact that globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty should not be dismissed, but some countries – West African states that have sold their fishing rights for the next two generations are examples as are states in the Balkans landed with hopelessly inadequate public services after liberalization was blithely confused with theft – have been victims not beneficiaries. India and China – models of poverty reduction – have yet to match decades of exponential economic growth with similarly prodigious progress in political debate or civic advocacy.

The war in Ukraine has brought with it the spectre of global hunger. The fissures in the financial system have already cast a shadow over the prospects of expanding or even sustaining present levels of prosperity. And this is before we begin to consider the challenges presented so importunately by global warming.

But there are grounds for optimism. We may be living in dark times, but we are not yet in the abyss. The public square is awash with people who think the earth is flat, but the majority of voices are reasonable. And millions of people around the world follow, to a greater or lesser degree, Havel’s exhortation to live in truth.

Everywhere there are voices making the case, eloquently and intelligently, for alternatives to the way we live now – new criteria for measuring success; ethical techniques for resolving disputes, viable and equitable strategies for spreading the benefits of economic development. Progress may be incremental rather than revolutionary – and it may be revolutionary even though it appears incremental: every cycle path erodes the planet-destroying hegemony of the internal combustion engine; every locally produced pound of potatoes at the farmer’s market reduces the stranglehold of agro-industrial conglomerates on the world’s food supply.

In the winter of 1992, in the face of daily shelling and sniping, without electricity, heating, medicine or adequate food supplies, the authorities in Sarajevo resolved to go ahead and organise the annual Bosnia and Herzegovina children’s song contest. The event, held in a bleak, sand-bagged barracks, with the microphones and single TV camera powered by an emergency generator at the back of the building, was a triumphant affirmation of the will not only to resist but to celebrate. “It’s our response to the gentlemen in the hills,” one citizen told me. It was a courageous response and one that is relevant today.

In the same way, Victor Heredia’s anthem encapsulates not only the righteous resolve of the families of those who disappeared in Argentina’s dark times, but the resistance of oppressed people everywhere. Todavía soñamos, todavía esperamos / Por un día distinto / Sin apremios ni ayuno / Sin temor y sin llanto. We still dream, we still hope for a better day, slow and calm, without tears, without fear.

Social and political movements based on hope are ultimately more powerful than those that are based on envy or spite. To dream of days without fear is a more powerful motivation than to dream of empire and wealth. Andrić and Selimović and Havel surely understood this. Dark times are illuminated by truth and by art and by humour. To resist – as Socrates didn’t say but might have done – the important thing is to keep singing.

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times