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Editorial: Calling the Better Angels

Editorial: Calling the Better Angels

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Special warning: This is a personal editorial, and not particularly related to lawyering in CEE. I hope our readers will indulge this unusual exception to our normal practice.

As an American living in Europe, I’ve received many requests for my thoughts about Donald Trump’s becoming President of the United States. In one sense, my explanation for that bewildering achievement is simple: He encouraged and then exploited fear for his own benefit.

However, Trump’s victory in America’s Electoral College is so significant – both in itself and as part of a larger, global story – that it requires expanded consideration.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that Trump’s victory in fact came after similar election results across Europe. Most notorious, perhaps, was the BREXIT – the 2016 decision by a majority of voting English to withdraw their country from the European Union. Similarly, though she has not yet herself won any significant election in France, Marine Le Pen’s party, the National Front, has been growing in popularity in recent years (in December 2016 one poll found it the most popular party among French citizens ages 18-34), and similar growth has been reported for nationalistic parties in the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere in Western Europe.

That phenomenon is perhaps particularly noticeable in CEE, where the return of  authoritarian governments in recent years represents nothing so much as an unfortunate – almost tragic – reversion to a familiar norm. Thus, the consolidation of power by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland, and most famously Vladimir Putin in Russia, all stir memories of recent strongmen.

So Donald Trump’s successful campaign for president in the United States should not be viewed in a vacuum, as if it happened in isolation from the rest of the world. Instead, his popularity, like that of the others, represents the result of the wave of hysteria, paranoia, xenophobia, and fear sweeping across the planet. The dangers of this phenomenon are real, and go far beyond the mere election of overmatched and unenlightened strongmen. That wave could well generate major military conflict, and soon. Our friends in Ukraine might suggest that time has already come, in fact, and Mikhail Gorbachev recently lamented in Time magazine that “it looks as if the entire world is preparing for war.” He’s right.

This is madness. 

Outrageously, infuriatingly, this retreat from democratic principles and from the institutions that have been so instrumental in creating an unprecedented period of peace, progress, and cooperation across the Western world flies directly in the face of reason and evidence. 

For despite the claims of Trump and his ilk, this is, empirically, an unprecedentedly safe era, leading modern statisticians to note that, in the words of Steven Pinker, “today we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.” Even deaths by terrorism in the West – the casus belli of this modern political hysteria – are low compared to the relatively dangerous 1960s and 70s. Look back to the years of the Red Brigades, ETA, the Baader Meinhof group, the Weather Underground, and the IRA, and consider that popular sentiment did not retreat from hope during those times.

And yet voters around the world nonetheless feel that the world is more dangerous now.

Why? Part of the answer for that, I believe, involves the cynical creation and exploitation of purported dangers by politicians who stand to gain as a result. Indeed, authoritarian leaders have always claimed that their nations face a significant economic and physical threat from outsiders, either in the form of minority populations or recent immigrants or refugees – especially if they have darker skin and/or different religions (and if they have both, look out). These craven politicians claim the need for expanded executive power and inevitably insist on aggressive interpretations of constitutional powers, cite unusual circumstances justifying exemptions from constitutional limitations, or attempt to amend constitutions outright in their favor. Inevitably, all – including, of course, Messrs. Putin, Trump, Erdogan, and Orban – insist that their elections are critical to their countries’ safety.

But these spurious claims depend for their success on the existence of a general state of anxiety, like weeds growing on fertilized land. That anxiety, I believe, is attributable directly to the information age we live in. And that, I believe, is the real story. 

For 99.9% of human history, news of violence in other parts of the world reached us slowly, if ever. Even when, somewhere in the 1940s and 1950s, we developed the ability to relay stories from abroad relatively quickly via radio and then television, there was a delay. Reporters had to get into place, find people to interview, and learn the details of the stories, and even then their reports needed to be slotted into hourly or nightly newscasts, which – because only limited time was available – were forced to order stories by significance, import, and relevance. (All of this, of course, depended on the press being able to report the stories it wanted to begin with).

But with the rise of cable and satellite TV, 24-hour news networks, hand-held cameras and mobile phones, and – of course – the Internet, those previous sorting factors fell away. News was ubiquitous, immediate, constant, and unfiltered. Everything was reported, everywhere, immediately. A child kidnapped in Seattle would be immediate news in Miami. A bomb going off in Baghdad would be reported immediately in Stockholm. And, yes, the Twin Towers could be watched crumbling and falling, live, around the world, as it happened. The unholy combination of 24-hour news networks desperate to fill time, technology allowing stories to be documented and transmitted to each and every one of us instantaneously, and the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality is unprecedented.

And it is tragic, for we have had no opportunity to develop the kind of cognitive skills we need to filter and make sense of this flood of information. Instead, we react to it all instinctively and emotionally. It creates a sense of dread, of anxiety, of concern that dangers lurk around every corner: that every child may be kidnapped, that every foreign country is dangerous, and that every stranger is a potential threat. And, overwhelmed by that anxiety, we abandon our principles in exchange for promises that we’ll be kept safe, as illusory as those promises may be.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. A sense of humor and perspective helps. Education helps. But I also suggest we recall – and encourage others to recall – the following keys to regaining sanity: (1) Bad things have always happened, are happening now, and will always happen, and no President or Prime Minister has it in his or her power to prevent them – and we must not only ignore and reject, but actively mock claims to the contrary; (2) Nonetheless, life is good; we are healthy, we play with our kids, we go dancing or to the cinema, we eat our favorite meals in our favorite restaurants – we are not at war, or close to it, despite the claims made by those who stand to profit from our fear. In other words, the awareness that sometimes bad things happen does not, in fact, require that life everywhere be played out under a shadow. Finally, (3) When images of violence appear on TV, pay attention to and encourage others to notice how many people are rushing towards the site, to help. The overwhelming majority of people rush to help. That spirit of compassion, of shared humanity, is where hope and strength come from.

Abraham Lincoln once, famously, inspired his countrymen to hope for an escape from a time of conflict by invoking “the better angels of our nature.” We cannot hope that the current American President and his cohort of small, angry people will respond to – or even understand – the enlightened exhortation of his predecessor. But we, fortunately, are not bound by their cynicism. We – all of us, everywhere – can do better.

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Now: A quick turn to this issue of the CEE Legal Matters magazine: It’s a good one. Radu spent a number of sleepless nights compiling, sorting, and filtering our annual Table of Deals to come up with our top ten lists and market-by-market breakdowns by number and value of reported deals. We also, for The Corner Office feature, focus on how the careers of Managing Partners in CEE have changed over time. 

For the Market Spotlight on Serbia, we consider the recent growth of Balkan law firm alliances and networks, and we review the controversial passage and recent demise of an unusual voting limitation on lawyers employed by law firms in the Belgrade Bar association. The Spotlight also contains a larger-than-usual Market Snapshot feature and an introductory editorial by Branislav Zivkovic at Serbia’s Zivkovic Samardzic Law Firm.

Add in the Table of Deals and On the Move sections, The Buzz from across CEE, a special guest editorial from Martin Kriz at PRK Partners, and an Experts Review feature focusing for the first time on Compliance, and this issue is something special. 

Finally, we would like to remind our readers of this year’s GC Summit, scheduled for Warsaw on June 1-2, 2017. This year’s event – our third – builds on the successes of the 2015 Summit in Budapest and the 2016 Summit last year in Istanbul. We’re putting together a top-notch roster of speakers and panels to make this event the best yet. If you’re a General Counsel or Head of Legal, make sure to visit the Summit website at www.2017gcsummit.ceelegalmatters.com. If you’re a law firm interested in sponsoring the event, please contact us for more information. The Summit is an invaluable two-day combination of best practices, networking, professional education, and fun. We look forward to seeing everybody there. 

By David Stuckey, Executive Editor, CEE Legal Matters

This Article was originally published in Issue 4.3 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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