A quarter of a century has passed since 1988 which marked the beginning of the end of the former Soviet Union. The national rebirth movement of Lithuania, Sajudis, came into existence blazing the trail for Lithuania and other Soviet republics to freedom and independence. Gaining the momentum, consolidating symbolic power and authority, and making people believe that the time has come to change history and world politics restoring justice – all these magnificent things would have been beyond the reach if the Lithuanian media had not changed the public domain almost overnight.
In fact, a happy combination of dedication, courage and passion made it possible, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to reform and refurbish the entire public domain of Lithuania. There was no secret in this: old Soviet professionalism deeply embedded in the abyss between specialized writing and political engagement retreated, thus allowing new ways of thinking and writing to step in. Quite a few columnists in the early 1990s came from literature and art criticism. Others were new figures in the media and press with their roots in civil and political protests generated by the Sajudis.
Suffice it to mention some celebrity writers who influenced and even shaped the then leading dailies, weeklies, and magazines. Such noted Lithuanian writers and essayists as Jurga Ivanauskaite (1961-2007) and Ricardas Gavelis (1950-2002) served as columnists for the daily Respublika. Incredible as it sounds, Respublika, notorious now for its antisemitic and homophobic editorials and slanderous writings, once was home for Jurga Ivanauskaite’s writings on society and culture, and also for Ricardas Gavelis’s brilliant essays.
Later Gavelis would begin working with the magazine Veidas, whose closing section was reserved solely for his provocative, caustic and ironic pieces. Rolandas Rastauskas, one of the most renowned essayists in Lithuania, was writing his essays exclusively for Lietuvos rytas. All these publications may be said to have greatly benefited from the talent of the aforementioned writers.
The late Gintaras Beresnevicius (1961-2006), a cultural historian and public intellectual who was able to easily surpass any political commentator in terms of the power and novelty of insight, was a true heir to this characteristically Lithuanian tradition of being a bright humanist capable of lending his or her talent to social analysis and political comment. He was a true heir to Gavelis. Not for a long time, alas. Ivanauskaite, Gavelis, and Beresnevicius died very young.
What happened next was the swift deterioration of the level of public discourse. The Pandora Box was opened up. Everybody was welcome to comment online, and the debate was measured by sheer commercial success. Quality of thought and expression was not an issue anymore. Lithuanian online publications allowed and even warmly welcomed anonymous comments underneath serious essays and professional comments. These anonymous pearls of wisdom always were and continue to be full of anger, frustration, hatred, ad hominem attacks, overt antisemitic remarks, homophobic insinuations, and even more frequently – personal insults, poisonous darts, and toxic lies. This is the ugly face of our media, an aspect which distorted all good and novel things in Lithuanian online press that were brought about by freedom of expression and fundamental political change.
Yet medium is the message. This piece of Marshall McLuhan’s creative genius and powers of anticipation strikes us as a prophecy of the 21st century. The idiom, form, language, political and moral sensibilities, and figures of speech – everything had gone with the wind of change overnight. Paper dailies and magazines began dying out right under our noses. The electronic portals started changing the landscape of the Lithuanian media dramatically. It was not that people lost their souls and sensitivities. Instead, Lithuania joined the 21st century world. The old European world had more to lose, though. The post-Communist world proved keener to change beyond recognition.
The brutality of the language, along with poor editing and undifferentiated attitudes both to professional assessments and sporadic mass opinions discouraged many gifted authors from writing political commentaries or else contributing to online publications. It was possible that ill manners and sadomasochistic language became a mask on the face of intellectual and moral void. Lack of content and political void, rather than merely an outbreak of stupidity, seems to have been the real reason behind confusion and uncertainty.
In the 1990s, Lithuania had high hopes concerning its bright future: it had a grand narrative and a self-legitimizing discourse of our return to Europe. On a closer look at our internal debates, it appears that part of our bitter disappointment springs from a radical change of roles: as Oscar Wilde would have had it, it is the horror of Ariel who sees in himself the mirror image of Caliban.
The country entered the phase of organized forgetting. Ours is an age of oblivion. Once we were struck by Milan Kundera’s message in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that the sad news about the tragedy of Prague as seen through Teresa’s photographs in Switzerland (where she and Tomas come to save their lives and future after the crushing of the velvet revolution of 1968) turned out old news. This is exactly what is happening in Lithuania. The best of our culture and thought is old news. The country and its media are sadly confined to TV reality shows, vanity fair, and private lives of public figures, which is just another term for showbiz figures.
This is not to say that Lithuania is incapable of good press and quality media. It is rather to suggest that the country seems to have next to nothing to remember and even less to celebrate but political scandals and the ups and downs of its political clowns.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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