A strange kind of paradise

9 March 2011
Only in en
New Humanist comments on Britain’s anti-feminist backlash; Blätter discusses Muslims as the better Europeans; Merkur says there are neighbours and then there are neighbours; Magyar Lettre is haunted by central European multilingualism; Host reads Czech prison writing; Samtiden thinks journalists should stay behind the police cordon; Ord&Bild finds WikiLeaks too important to leave to a few activists; L’Espill knows that not everything permitted to Spanish politicians is honest; and Mittelweg 36 explores mutations in on- and offline friendship.

The cuts in public spending recently announced by the British government coalition will above all hit women, writes Sally Feldman in New Humanist. Women are “disproportionately affected by the Budget changes, including caps on housing benefit, a freeze on child benefit and a rise in VAT”. Despite promises to the contrary, the Treasury “appeared to have failed to honour its legal duty under the Equality Act to give ‘due regard’ to the impact on women”.

Is the fiscal crisis just used as “a cover for restructuring the state and returning to a more traditional view of women’s roles”? The idea that women have different sensibilities from men that make them ideal for supportive, caring and helping roles might seem outmoded, but now “an unexpected cheerleader for these traditional views has emerged”, notes Feldman: Catherine Hakim from the London School of Economics. In a Centre for Policy Studies report entitled Feminist Myths and Magic Medicine, Hakim condemns most moves towards gender equality: “The goal of getting 50/50 male/female shares in all political, economic and socially important top jobs is out of touch with the preferences and aspirations of the majority of women.”

The belief in the separate sphere of men and women has roots in the Judaeo-Christian worldview “where even in the Garden of Eden the original couple had divided duties”, writes Feldman. “It’s a strange kind of paradise we seem to be returning to. These days Eve’s duties are likely to include stints at the library, delivering meals on wheels, running a school perhaps […] and organizing a tombola to keep the local museum open. Watch out for snakes.”

Rhyme and reason: 200 years ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for publishing the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. Jonathan Re reassesses the Romantic poet’s rationalism and finds that “if atheism means a refusal to believe in anything that might be called God, then Shelley was not much of an atheist after all”.

The full table of contents of New Humanist 2/2011

Blätter publishes a speech given by Tariq Ramadan at a recent conference in Berlin on “Germany’s Muslims and European Islam”. Entitled “Europe and the challenge of the Muslim presence”, Ramadan’s speech strikes the balance between conciliation and confrontation: “As a European, there’s one thing I definitely will not do, and that is to understand myself as belonging to a minority. I share the values that are common to all of us, and Muslims should finally stop – and that really is a challenge – perceiving themselves as a minority. If I want to respond to Thilo Sarrazin, I must do that as a European and make it clear that his theses don’t represent the slightest threat to me as a Muslim, but on the contrary, that Sarrazin is betraying the intellectual values of Europe.”

Dan Diner, in a commentary round responding to Ramadan, picks up on the significance of the European dimension in Ramadan’s position: “For Muslims it may be far easier to perceive oneself as European than as French or German, above all because what is meant with ‘Europe’ is a horizon of expectation that in the future may be able to overcome affiliations linked to the accumulation of memory and culture, in other words the past. A horizon of expectation that neutralizes everything that accompanies the national. To achieve a new ‘we’ in the national community, as is demanded in Germany, is a major undertaking. The German collective ‘we’ is connected to specific historical events, for example the Second World War and the Holocaust. But can a German citizen of Muslim faith and Turkish origin identify with such a ‘we’?”

Arab revolutions: Analysing the Egyptian revolution as “sociologist on the ground”, Mohammed A. Bamyeh singles out key elements in the emerging Arab uprisings of 2011: spontaneity, civic ethics, the prioritization of the political and the “autocratic deafness” of the regimes. “That on 2 February some of Mubarak’s supporters found nothing better to do than send thugs on camels and horses to disperse the crowd at Tahrir, seemed to reflect the regime’s antiquated character: a regime from a bygone era, with no relationship to the moment at hand. It was as if a rupture in time had happened, and we were witnessing a battle from the twelfth century. From my perspective in the crowd, it was as if they rode through and were swallowed right back into the fold that returned them to the past.”

The full table of contents of Blätter fÜr deutsche und internationale Politik 3/2011

In Merkur, Herfried Mnkler discusses concepts of neighbourhood both within and between national societies. In liberal societies, he writes, the degree of proximity between citizens cannot be politically decreed but must be left to civil society to negotiate: “For the last thirty years the communitarian admonition to society has been that proximity is essential,” Mnkler comments. However in relations between neighbouring states, this liberal tenet applies less: “Openly expressed distance under conditions of neighbourhood proximity is often nothing other than concealed enmity.” It is the role of regional organizations to “prevent an uncontrolled switch from uncultivated neighbourhood into enmity, and thus enable a certain opportunity for distance.”

“Organizational routine” can replace the cultivation of neighbourly relations when there is more distance separating two states. But where neighbours border on each other directly, involving third-party arbitration represents a concession that neighbours are unable to sort out a problem between themselves. Exclusive two-way partnership relations are necessary, argues Mnkler; the more these “special relationships” are accepted by other members of the organization, the more stable the organization as a whole. Gathering distrust in the EU towards French-German “chairmanship” show that other members are likely to feel demoted if bi-lateral relationships are not practiced and communicated considerately.

On the other hand, writes Mnkler, the German-French axis “demonstrates that the larger membership associations become, the more they need a leadership that is more than the sum of votes on individual issues. When talk is of neighbourhood, partnership and friendship, the impression quickly arises that one is dealing with relations between equals, and that, through a kind of non-hierarchical discourse, a common viewpoint can be developed and then implemented politically by the functionaries of the neighbouring countries. The terms neighbour, partner and friend effect a semantic levelling of differences in power and weight, differences that this semantic coup does not do away with.”

The full table of contents of Merkur 3/2011

In an issue of Magyar Lettre profiling eastern central European literature, Istvn Vrs sees the multilingualism of Czech Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mcha as an object lesson for the present day: “For Mcha, the question of language appears as a question of freedom, or rather freedom appears as a question of language. There is no greater freedom for a writer than to be able to choose his or her language.” Mcha wrote in Czech, used German as his window onto European literature and as a proponent of Slavic mutuality read Polish and Slovenian. “Looking back from the twenty-first century, it is not enough to point out that it was right to choose the Czech language; we also have to notice that the act of choosing itself was right.”

The real spectre that Mcha let loose is not one of the spectres roaming in his works,” writes Vrs, “but rather the spectre of our own literature as something evil; the idea that the history of Czech or Hungarian literature is not an obvious success story; that these literatures do not have a spirit but rather a spectre. We should not be scared of this expression. […] If we are aware that even at the moment of writing we are locked into the body of a spectre, that we are feeding this spectre, this is a good starting point. We must haunt world literature.

Memory: Czech novelist Radka Denemarkova aims an invective at Czech memorial culture since 1989 (first published in German in Die Welt in February 2010): “The same things are remembered again and again, things that in the context of the era and the information available at the time, were perceived in different ways. They thus merely increase our blindness. Our private memory is completed by the collective memory. But isn’t truthfulness of our own memories weakened as a result?”

In translation: Martin M. Simecka and Lszl Rajk discuss the still unanswered questions surrounding the involvement of their fathers’ generation in post-war communism; James Hawes describes how unwelcome truths about Kafka are bad for business in Prague; and Przemyslaw Czaplinski explores representations of the German other in Polish self-imagining.

The full table of contents of Magyar Lettre Internationale 79 (2010-2011)

Introducing an issue of Host on prison and literature, Petr Motyl points out that modern Czech literature began with a prisoner, the hero of Karel Hynek Mcha’s romantic epic May.

Motyl’s survey of prison prose and poetry concludes with the work of poet Ivan M. Jirous – a leading figure in the Czech underground opposition, perhaps best known as the artistic director of the Plastic People of the Universe. Jirous’ series Loony’s Swansongs, written in the 1980s in the harsh Valdice prison while serving time for oppositional activities, are unsurpassed in the genre, writes Motyl. “No prison poetry showing more distinctive artistic qualities has emerged since 1989.”

Contemporary writers have turned their prison experiences into literature for the issue. They include Do You Like it Raw? – an extract from the prison memoir of Ren Plsil, whose re-offending over a twenty year period was the subject of a 2008 documentary; and five visceral short stories by writer and performer Milan Kozelka, based on his five years in and out of prisons in the 1970s and 1980s for crimes including “parasitism”. In an accompanying interview, Kozelka claims to have been unfairly convicted, but would never dream of considering himself a political prisoner. “Although I did have a conviction for disorderly conduct – after shouting, while drunk one night, something about the superiority of free jazz over bureaucracy. I got a suspended sentence which later got tacked on to the total.”

Also: Zdenek Mitcek finds that the best examples of the prison genre throw light on a judicial system that “often fails to differentiate between people who have found themselves on the slippery slope as a result of some rash action and those who ‘cannot cope’ outside prison”; Karolna Ryvolov is disappointed by memoirs by two former Roma prisoners, Ladislav Herk-Arpy and Zdenek Persky, both of whom, she feels, downplay their Roma identity, making it difficult for the reader to connect with their stories; and Ales Paln reports on a visit to the remarkable VS Press, staffed by male inmates of Prague’s Pankrc prison, that publishes fiction in Czech, Romanian, Mongolian and other languages, as well as programmes for the National Theatre.

The full table of contents of Host 2/2011

“In this article we have chosen to name the journalists, as well as quote e-mails and text messages,” writes Cathrine Sandnes in the latest issue of Samtiden, introducing an article on the media frenzy surrounding the kidnapping of a Norwegian-Pakistani woman near Oslo. “In this case I believe it is not only defensible but also necessary to illustrate how the media works in its quest to get a story in the papers or on TV. We get an inside view into how journalists oscillate between being friends and professional journalists, with no clear boundaries between the two. We get an impression of the reality of journalists versus the reality of the victim’s next of kin, how crime journalists think, and how fast empathy can change to insensitivity when a story is placed before human considerations.”

Ahmed Fawad Ashraf’s sister Faiza was kidnapped and murdered in February 2010 outside Oslo. Over the course of three weeks, the media turned the story from a kidnap case to an ethnic crime with undertones of honour killing and forced marriage, directing suspicion onto the family instead of the police suspects.

Ashraf, himself a journalist, presents a day-by-day account of the three weeks from the moment Faiza was kidnapped until her body was found. He describes how journalists refused to accept the confirmed events and instead focused on her Pakistani background. “It is as if Faiza’s disappearance wasn’t spectacular enough in itself. It wasn’t enough that a young woman was kidnapped by a Norwegian hired by a jealous and rejected taxi driver. The family had to have been involved.”

He concludes: “After five years as a journalist, a job I looked forward to doing every day, I no longer know if I can continue in this profession. Tabloid journalists are shameless and I have no wish to associate with them.”

The full table of contents of Samtiden 1/2011

The image of a brave, lonely and technically skilled man as the driving force behind WikiLeaks conceals more than it reveals, writes science theorist Christopher Kullenberg in an issue of Ord&Bild dedicated to “Documents, documentaries and documentation”.

Describing the ontology and logistics of “the Internet leak”, Kullenberg notes that it has restored the principle of anonymity of sources, a crucial part of the process of disclosure of sensitive information that can no longer be guaranteed by traditional media. But the anonymization process cannot be fully automated and activists who erase the identity of a source shoulder heavy responsibility.

To defend Internet leaks and secure their future we need to stand up for the open character of the Internet as a whole rather than for individual organizations. The three component’s of the logistics of the leak – activists and volunteers, a broadly distributed computer network, the possibility of encryption – are all under constant attack. […] The Internet leak has changed the way we think about transparency, democracy and global flows of information. The question whether it will prevail or not is not only the concern of a few Internet activists – its fate is in our hands as well.

Art and exploitation: In a long conversation, Dutch artist Renzo Martens’ film Episode III is scrutinized by philosophers, artists and academics. Martens’ 2008 “documentary” features a cynical white man travelling around Congo. Confronted with undernourishment, mass graves and violence, he reacts by making a neon sign saying “Enjoy poverty, please”. The film has stirred debate all over the art world: is it a truthful depiction of western hypocrisy or yet another example of the abuse it denounces? The Ord&Bild conversation mirrors these reactions. Elin Wikstrm: “What I really dislike is Martens’ concept and method, the very idea of making a film about the West’s ruthless exploitation of Congo’s citizens and natural resources by imitating the way of thinking and acting of the very authorities, companies, media conglomerates and aid organizations he wants to criticize.”

The full table of contents of Ord&Bild 5/2010

In some European countries, political corruption has become a systemic problem. In L’Espill, Manuel Alcaraz analyses the political assumptions and logical conclusions of Spanish politicians in their attempts to conceal or excuse recent political corruption scandals. Vindicating the classical proverb Non omne quod licet honestum est (not everything that is permitted is honest), Alcaraz warns that just because corruption is not criminal doesn’t mean it’s not corrupt. “It is legal for a prosecuted politician to lie and to hide documents to avoid punishment, but may he lie to the citizens (for the same purpose) while holding public office? Would not the fact of hiding documents also be a crime? What kind of credibility derives from such actions?”

Music and ecology: Traditionally, the best music is that which has a set of perfectly coordinated elements, each obediently fulfilling its role. According to Felip Mart-Jufresa, this point of view reflects the ancient theological idea of a kosmos composed of Order and Function. This notion of system, coherence, unity and order governs the new orthodoxy known as ecology, Mart-Jufresa continues, a secular organicism that even attracts it own music. “A postmodern neo-organicism, different from the caricatures which it has inspired, will have to be able to think this order in music, which will be simultaneously compelling, strict and fragile, which will float and be part of a vast space only apparently without rhyme or reason.”

Higher education: We should forget the commonplace that new technologies lead the way to ignorance and illiteracy, asserts Guillermo Quints. Hypertext and multimedia editions are an unexplored continent and an opportunity for university presses to adapt their products to the new demands of the European Higher Education Area. “Universities need to consider who the users of their products are, and decide how they will use the information and communications technologies and at what speed they should develop this means of publishing.”

The full table of contents of L’Espill 36 (2011)

Friendship is the focus of Mittelweg 36, both in the virtual and in the real-world sense. Janosch Schobin detects a tendency for friendships to take a more prominent role: with an increase in single households and childlessness, “friends tend to become more important in adults’ personal support networks.” At the same time, relationships within “multi-local multi-generational families” are increasingly turning into friendships. The whole concept of friendship as such is shifting:

Today, the model for a ‘true’ friendship is the best girlfriend for life and not the friendship formed during a youthful adventure. […] The popular discourse of friendship in our day and age is retreating from the heroic and implicitly male ideal of friendship towards a caring one, with elements of a female-charged friendship ethos.

Finding nobody: “Human beings, communicative as they are, have finally discovered in the Internet the congenial medium”, writes Aleida Assmann. “Through new conditions of communication”, the Internet has “abolished loneliness; or to be more precise, has got rid of the negative effects of involuntary loneliness to a hitherto unimagined degree.”

Borders between sociability and loneliness are shifting, writes Assmann, and the pressure of social conformity is lessening as computer nerds turn into savvy heroes. Assmann cites an unlikely yet striking analyst of the “complex permeation of loneliness and friendship on the Internet”: Emily Dickinson.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us!

Also: Steven A. Aschheim reviews the correspondence between Gershom Sholem and Hannah Arendt, recently published in German: a friendship that broke up over the Eichmann controversy.

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 1/2011

Published 9 March 2011

Original in English
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© Eurozine


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