As Conchita Wurst stepped up to accept the cut-glass microphone that is the Eurovision Song Contest winner’s trophy, it seemed fantastically apt. Conchita was actually the bearded but female-attired Tom Neuwirth, who described himself as a cis man, and had just belted out a magnificent song about pride and self-acceptance called “Rise Like a Phoenix”. The world was heading in the direction of tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity.
That was in 2014. The world seems very different now. The US may have seen off Donald Trump (for the moment), but nationalist anti-liberals have risen to power all around the globe: in Brazil, in India and in Europe itself. Poland now has “LGBT ideology free zones” in a number of towns.
Eurovision has not changed, of course. This year’s contest features a number of songs celebrating female empowerment, such as the offering from Russia, whose singer – Manizha – has come in for criticism back home.
More impressive still is North Macedonia’s Vasil, who has come out as gay. In Eurovision, this is hardly radical – but in the Balkans, this is still an act of great courage. He has received thousands of homophobic tweets in his country, where gay sex was illegal until 1996 and where the first Pride march was in 2019. His song is appropriately titled, “Here I Stand”.
However, one country that will not be participating this year is Belarus. Its entry, “I’ll Teach You”, has been banned by the EBU (who run Eurovision). The writers and performers, a country-rock band called Galasy ZMesta, object – claiming the song is about control in a relationship. But there is more to the story.
The band are known for their unabashed support of President Lukashenko. Their name means “voices from the places”, by which they mean “from the provinces”. The band say they are speaking up for the ordinary folk of Belarus, and disapprove of the current protests in Belarussian cities, which they describe as a “circus”. The band, their fans and the state broadcaster that selected them know perfectly well what the song is really about: a criticism of the protesters.
There have been accusations of human rights abuses in the wake of last year’s presidential election, with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) calling it a period of “systematic and brutal violence”. It was right to ban them. Or was it?
Is Eurovision slipping into “cancel culture”? Shouldn’t voices from the provinces be heard, even if we urban Western Europeans don’t like what they have to say? Isn’t the current upsurge of populism around the world a direct consequence of trying to silence people like this, who are – surely – entitled to express their views?
Don’t liberals argue, like Evelyn Beatrice Hall did back in 1906: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? And wouldn’t it be better for the band to appear on stage at Rotterdam, and get a healthy booing from the audience and nul points in the semi-finals, after which they could return home to Belarus with a healthy dose of Euro-egg on their face?
Maybe. Only they wouldn’t get “nul points”, as some other Eastern bloc countries, especially Russia, would give them some. And if they got booed, they would return home as brave martyrs, having scored a propaganda coup by penetrating a powerful Western liberal institution and blowing it a loud raspberry.
Welcome to the paradox of liberalism. What do you do in the face of people who deny basic freedoms to others? Should you politely debate with the representatives of governments who don’t allow polite debate?
As the world gets colder (morally and politically), this paradox becomes ever more challenging. There is, perhaps, a lesson from history via the scientist Percy Bridgeman, who, in the 1930s, refused to let scientists from totalitarian countries visit his labs.
In the end, the EBU have been able to evade this moral choice. They have a rule that bans “political” songs, and Galasy ZMesta have been excluded on that ground. But critics say that their definition of “political” is fuzzy and biased. Didn’t the same EBU allow 2016 winner “1944”, which was a criticism of Putin’s invasion of Crimea? A veiled criticism, but so is “I’ll Teach You”. And isn’t it “political” to promote gay rights in North Macedonia?
The paradox can’t be totally wriggled out of. In a world where, unlike in 2014, liberal views face uncompromising opposition in many places, we are increasingly forced to make uncomfortable choices. The Eurovision Song Contest has chosen to stick to its core values. Good for it.
Eurovision! A History of Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest by Chris West is out now from Melville House UK