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Miloš Vec

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The crass defence of Christendom

New Humanist lays to rest the myth of Christian values; Glänta watches racism mutate; Vikerkaar calls Breivik the first terrorist of the European New Right; Wespennest explores Austria as it is; Magyar Lettre seeks alternatives to regime architecture; Merkur dwells on the Green vision of self-induced annihilation; Blätter says Iranian philosophers prove Islam can do democracy; Studija doubts good art needs the kudos of victimization; and NLO re-reads Enlightenment cosmopolitanism.

New Humanist 6/2011

Anders Breivik considered his murderous attacks in Oslo and Utøya to be defensive strikes protecting what he saw as the ultimate "identity and moral platform" of the West: Christian Europe. Breivik is far from alone in advocating the idea that Christianity provides the foundations of western civilization; just think of the debate surrounding the preamble of the European Constitution. But is it really so?

No, says Kenan Malik in New Humanist. The history is far more complex:

Christianity has certainly been the crucible within which the intellectual and political cultures of western Europe have developed over the past two millennia. But the claim that Christianity embodies the 'bedrock values of western civilization' and that the weakening of Christianity inevitably means the weakening of liberal democratic values greatly simplifies both the history of Christianity and the roots of modern democratic values – not to mention underplays the tensions that often exist between 'Christian' and 'liberal' values.

The irony, concludes Malik, "is that the defenders of Christendom are riffing on the same politics of identity as Islamists, multiculturalists and many of the other '-ists' that such defenders so loathe."

The reason to challenge the crass alarmism about the decline of Christianity is not simply to lay to rest the myths about the Christian tradition. It is also because that alarmism is itself undermining the very values – tolerance, equal treatment, universal rights – for the defence of which we supposedly need a Christian Europe. The erosion of Christianity will not necessarily lead to the erosion of such values. The crass defence of Christendom against the 'barbarian hordes' may well do.

Sex: Few people will today remember that it was the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich who coined the phrase "the sexual revolution". Reich actually meant this to be taken literally; for him sex – and above all the orgasm – was a route to political freedom. Eight decades after the publication of Reich's groundbreaking work The Function of the Orgasm, Sally Feldmann notes that even the UK National Health Service claims that orgasms are good for you.

They may not quite have achieved the utopia that Reich had prophesied. But it's worth reflecting that just a few decades ago it was barely acknowledged that women could enjoy sex at all, let alone do so on their own terms and without guilt. Nowadays, sexual fulfilment is seen as a right, a norm, a route to wellbeing. And that, surely, is reason enough to cry out with joy. Even if the revolution must wait.

The full table of contents of New Humanist 6/2011

Glänta 2/2011

Introducing an issue on "biopolitics, desire and racism", the editors of Glänta comment on the recent critique of multiculturalism coming from prominent politicians across Europe. (More on Angela Merkel's and David Cameron's attacks on multiculturalism here, here and here.)

The same critique that has been raised against the concept of multiculturalism could also be applied to the declarations saying that multiculturalism is dead. Accusing those groups that could and should have enriched society of being unable to blend peacefully into a shared community is just another example of the same old discourse of difference. Clinging to this way of thinking is one more way of avoiding having to ask what privileges are actually at stake: those that you enjoy but through political manoeuvring deny to others; and those that, for the first time, you now risk losing, as new groups start to claim their rights.

Racism has mutated, claim the editors; the challenge is now to understand a form of racial discrimination that no longer refers to the superiority of one's own group but claims the opposite: that one's group is weak and its annihilation is imminent.

Mourning the loss of "Good old Sweden": Sweden's post-war image as model of egalitarianism and antiracism contains more than a trace of national and racial chauvinism, argue whiteness studies scholars Tobias Hübinette and Catrin Lundström. As myths of the better Sweden fade, both Right and Left are consumed by "white melancholy":

White melancholia, so painful to bear yet unspeakable, is a psychic state, a structure of connection to the nation, common to Swedes as well as to the image of Sweden in the world. It is as much about the humiliating decline of Sweden as frontrunner of egalitarianism, humanitarianism and antiracism as about the mourning of the passing of the Swedish population as the whitest of all white peoples.

There is no easy way out of this dilemma, Hübinette and Lundström conclude. The Swedes will have to "acknowledge the fact that the object of [their] love is irretrievably and irrevocably lost, however painful that may be." Neither "old Sweden" nor "good Sweden" exist anymore.

The full table of contents of Glänta 2/2011

Vikerkaar 9/2011

In Vikerkaar (Estonia), fascismologist Roger Griffin revisits his 2003 article "From slime mould to rhizome: An introduction to the groupuscular Right" in the light of the Web. Griffin now finds that "the rhizomic principle as expressed in the article is an even more important organizational principle in the age of the Internet and the virtual and physical cultic milieu that it creates among extremists of any persuasion".

The Breivik case, Griffin writes, is "interesting because it draws on populism and the European New Right, marking a break with the genetic and eugenic racism of traditional Nazism and neo-Nazism to focus on identity and cultural homogeneity: his attacks may be the first extreme rightwing terrorist strikes on behalf of the ideology of the European New Right and the neo-populist Right rather than traditional neo-Nazism."

Placing Breivik's attack in line with anarchist bombings, Hitler's putsch and other more recent individual attacks is its foundation on "the same apocalyptic myth, that the spilling of blood cleanses, purifies and triggers cataclysmic change, and that atrocities in civic society magically lead to historical change." Griffin concludes: "The episode stresses the need for counter-terrorism forces and experts on far-Right terrorism to be keenly aware of the significant changes in the nature of the far-Right."

Literature: Estonian-Russian writer Andrei Ivanov talks to Jaan Ross about the literary influences of his novels and the extent to which they depend on his personal experience. "I have never intended to write my biography, I rather aim at constructing a text, taking into account my own experience, the things that have happened to me. I don't find myself a very interesting person. What must be interesting are the stories that I tell."

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 9/2011

Wespennest 161 (2011)

Wespennest explores "Austria as it is", and in surprising ways challenges not only classic stereotypes such as the Habsburg complex and Austria's status as Hitler's first victim, but stereotypical criticism itself.

Hazel Rosenstrauch, the child of Austrian-Jewish communist emigrants born in London and brought up in Vienna, writes on "the presence of the past": "I want to hold onto a couple of idiosyncrasies, so that the belatedly emergent 'critique of Austria' doesn't also get rid of the memory of the lost culture of the also-Austrians."

I will, then, report on the ten-thousandth, no, the fifty-thousandth of the Austrian population that was so abnormal as to fight against Nazism. Strong women who went their own ways, partly still influenced by the ideas of emancipation of the Twenties, confident and professional, their faces lined by laughter, despite or even because of their usually difficult fates. Men who were not deformed by the Hitler Youth and the NSDAP, or by their fighting on the 'wrong side'. Many of them of Jewish origin, which they didn't deny, but didn't consider important. [...] Because they were political people who had fought, they refused to allow themselves to be called victims.

"How unfair that we're overlooked so easily!" Analysing two luxury volumes on Austria, published in 1948 and 2010, Wolfgang Müller-Funk concludes: "Peeking out from behind the official and half-official self-representation of our country is the fear that, because we are (or have become) so small, we could be ignored in, and above all by, the big wide world. For that reason, and because of the insecurities, which are also a consequence of our incriminating history, we can't get rid of the compulsion of having to talk, speak and tell about ourselves permanently. [...] All these moments completely involuntarily and en passent make up what is entirely special and unique about the symbolic construction of Austria, that is to have to build up a state on the basis of a chain of defeats and catastrophes."

The full table of contents of Wespennest 161 (2011)

Magyar Lettre Internationale 82 (2011)

In eastern central Europe, the substitution of communist elites by a free-market coterie after 1989 has its architectural parallel in a new type of "regime architecture", writes Igor Kovacevic in Magyar Lettre. The neoliberal style favoured by non-state actors is copied by the public sector: the new city hall in Budapest and the Slovak National Bank both use the language of commercial development, writes Kovacevic, "thereby removing the representative roles of the institutions in question".

The alternative, argues the founding member of the Centre for Central European Architecture, "is to convince the public that investment in public buildings makes sense, even though not profitable on a short-term basis". Architects must serve as "ambassadors of architecture and quality space." The Czech architect Miroslav Masák, famous for the Máj department store in Prague (1975), is one such "non-regime" architect. "His work is not just design", according to Kovacevic, "but the product of a public thinker".

Hungarianizing history: The "Hungarianization" of the history of towns and cities belonging to Hungary before 1922 disregards demographic processes, argues Csaba Zahorán. An oft-quoted 1910 census indicating a Hungarian urban majority failed to include the remaining three quarters of the population, still living in archaic rural conditions and little affected by assimilation. After the end of the Hungarian administration, public spaces were given a new national character, and the use of the Hungarian language was gradually reduced in offices and public life. After 1945, "socialist" modern city centres were constructed which eradicated the "foreign" (Hungarian, German, Jewish) past. Even in the democratic period, writes Zahorán, Hungarian communities have been reduced by aging, immigration and assimilation, "all of which presages the eradication of the local Hungarian institutional network."

Also: Reporting from Tunisia, Antoine Garapon is struck by a sense of reversal: the revolutionary sprit has crossed the Mediterranean. Today, it is the Tunisians who have a lesson to teach us, one that we once shared but that has faded from memory: a lesson in politics.

The full table of contents of Magyar Lettre Internationale 82 (2011)

Merkur 11/2011

The November issue is Merkur's 750th, and on this occasion the journal discusses a subject "particularly near and dear to our hearts: the project of liberalism". Thomas E. Schmidt undertakes a history of the German Green party, arguing that, in their fledgling years, the topic of nature proved inclusive at a time when political legitimacy was at an all-time low, absorbing any number of Romantic undercurrents in German culture:

It was not resurgent Christian religiosity, not a renewed natural law that pushed the subject of nature to the surface during these years, but rather an existentially exaggerated critique of civilization. 'Nature' articulated an all-round uneasiness. [...] In this context the word has a double meaning: it becomes an active term of political struggle onto which programmatic aims are attached, and it also marks an absolute, an apocalyptic horizon of self-induced annihilation as basis for a new social morality.

Ultimately, Schmidt argues, this leads to a fundamental change in political agenda-setting: "Ecological politics does not replace an old political register through a new one. Instead, it shifts the order of relevance in political praxis: old conflicts appear new in the light of a universalized horizon of values."

The evolution of the subject of climate politics is a good example of this: it began as a national argument about techniques for generating sustainable energy and progressively broadened to become the framework for understanding all the political and economic phenomena in the globalized world. The interests and the strategies of the emerging nations are in the meantime also perceived and judged in the context of a natural world-ethic. The emerging nations have a different view. Concern for nature itself thus becomes the source of political conflict, without there being mechanisms in place beforehand for arbitrating these new conflicts.

Also: British political scientist Michael Freeden explains why we still need not only liberalism but also liberals; and Rainer Paris ponders a basic problem of sociology: the connection between power, authority and leadership.

The full table of contents of Merkur 11/2011

Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2011

Can Islam do democracy? The question gaining momentum in the West as elections approach in post-revolutionary Arab states has been discussed at length for decades throughout the Islamic world, nowhere more so than in Iran, writes Katajun Amirpur in Blätter. The anti-western intellectual atmosphere of pre- and post-revolutionary Iran – marked by thinkers such as Mohammed Hussein Tabatabai, Dschalal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Schariati – has, with the experience of real-existing Islamism, taken a clear democratic turn.

The official definition of democracy and human rights as un-Islamic has obliged "post-Islamist" philosophers to go to great lengths to argue for a fundamental compatibility of democracy and Islam, explains Amirpur. Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, one of contemporary Iran's most important intellectuals, returns to the early history of the caliphate for evidence that democracy embodies Shia principles; Abdolkarim Soroush, another hugely influential thinker, argues that Islam must provide the conscience and soul of the religious state and ensure that it remains free and democratic.

"Here a traditional norm is translated into a modern principle," writes Amirpur. This process, which ethnologists have called "vernacularization" or "framing", "can't be rejected as simply apologist. The framing of democracy as a key Islamic concept of justice has, on the contrary, a mobilizing impact on society, which actually aspires to this social and political goal. Framing is also necessary for another reason: only when ideas such as democracy have been genuinely adopted both culturally and habitually [...] will the suspicion of western paternalism that still exists at least in some parts of Iran, as well as the Arab population, finally start to fade."

Euro bail-out: Of all the absurdities in the latest banking rescue package, writes Lucas Zeise, the greatest is that the banks are being rescued at all. "The first time as tragedy, the second time, to cite Karl Marx, as farce. Tragedy because with the first bank bailout, those responsible for pushing the global economy into crisis were massively rewarded [...] The rude farce will soon become apparent when bankers and politicians observe that their words and decisions are misunderstood both by the public and the finance sector – and the carefully constructed rescue structure will collapse silently like in an early black-and-white movie."

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2011

Studija 5/2011

Was the pioneer of Latvian abstractionism, Zenta Logina, a tragic heroine who "suffered under the abuses and restrictions imposed by the Soviet regime?" In Studija, Janis Borgs discusses the question with two incidents from Logina's life: the relegation of her membership status in the Soviet Artists Union to that of "candidate"; and the deportation of her husband to Siberia.

There is no clear evidence that the latter happened for any political reason. It was "an economic crime for which he was made the scapegoat," argues Borgs. The only concrete reference to political repression is made by Logina herself and relates to the Nazi occupation: "In 1942, I was banned from exhibiting or selling my work for eight months because I was considered a politically suspect person." And that was it.

As for the relegation of her membership with the Artists Union, Borgs speculates that this was nothing more than a "settling of accounts" for her refusal to engage in gossip and fraternization. She was reinstated as a full Artists Union comrade in 1953. All too often, states Borgs, the desired status as political victim is averred without evidence. As far as he is concerned, "her greatness in painting today is convincing enough [...] for there to be no need to magnify it through various decorative 'improvements' and ideologically motivated fabrications."

Messages between the lines: Stella Pelse reviews the Estonian artist Peeter Allik's exhibition "I saw that". In Allik's hands, the linotype technique "has been transformed into compositions of finely crafted ornamentation, linear intertwining and spatial volumes of a mostly illusory nature". His art is often a stinging commentary on post-Soviet countries' failure to develop a western-style social welfare state, writes Pelse.

The full table of contents of Studija 5/2011

New Literary Observer 110 (2011)

"Enlightenment cosmopolitanism should be understood not as a global design to control the world but as an emancipatory project that points to the common humanity of West and East and the inhumanities imperial designs have brought upon the world." In NLO, Robert Fine offers a "qualified defence" of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism against the critique of Eurocentrism:

Just as the idea of 'formal freedom' in the French Revolution set in motion all manner of political demands far beyond the original conception of the Rights of Man and Citizen, so too the idea of universal humanity has its own symbolic power. It designates a space of politicization in which the right to universality as such, that is, the right of every human being to assert him or herself as a universal subject, is given its own efficacy.

The racism in Kant's anthropological writings – in which Native Americans are represented as being too weak for hard work, Africans as adapted to the culture of slaves, etc. – cannot be dismissed by arguing that Kant was a child of his time, Fine concedes. However Kant was attempting to demonstrate that "racial" difference does not challenge the biological unity of the human race. "At the time he was writing, the universality of the human condition was beginning to become a legal, political and moral reality. In other words, race was becoming an idea of the past."

Cosmopolitan publishing: Diderot's and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie is widely seen as the summa of Enlightenment values and attitudes: anti-clericalism, materialism, a belief in progress, its emphasis on human dignity and denunciation of oppression. Yet what did the work actually mean for readers at the time? David Adams argues that variations and corruptions in its many editions and translations meant that the allegedly "European" influence of the Encyclopédie was much more heterogeneous:

Even those readers who could cope with French were by no means guaranteed always and everywhere to have the same version at their disposal", writes Adams. "These changes were of an order which the editors could not have foreseen. [...] Readers who had to manage in other languages were offered a variety of selections and extracts which were often far from fully conveying the propaganda purposes or the intellectual brio of the original.

The full table of contents of New Literary Observer 110 (2011)


Published 2011-11-09

Original in English
© Eurozine

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