"I never watch television"

29 September 2010
Only in en
Soundings doubts the official discourse of military heroism; Vikerkaar finds plenty of liberty, some equality, but very little fraternity; Index talks to Daniel Barenboim about music and censorship; Ord&Bild asks if the TV drama is the new and better novel; Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) argues that Wikileaks punctures the myth of the death of journalism; Kulturos barai recalls the intellectual force of Hungarian samizdat; Osteuropa watches Poland and Russia come together over Katyn; and Syn og Segn is embarrassed by Stoltenberg’s fawning upon Obama.

In Soundings, Vron Ware discusses how public debate in the UK about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan undermine government efforts to downplay war-risks in the minds of voters. Mounting casualties and controversies over equipment have fuelled a wave of protest that came to a head in 2007, when people began lining the streets of the southern English village of Wooton Bassett to pay tribute to military hearses on their way to forensic laboratories in Oxford.

Forced to act, the government launched a review of conditions of service and an investigation into civil-military relations. Yet “rather than concede the unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”, writes Ware, it “retreated to higher ground to persuade the electorate of its patriotic duties”. The suppression of sympathy for soldiers and their families was replaced by a language of sacrifice and heroism, and an “armed forces day” was introduced “in emulation of the militarized rituals of national identity” typical of the US. “Concealed behind this performance of national consensus was the message that those who did not agree were voluntarily placing themselves on the outside.”

Labour after New Labour: “The sixteen years of New Labour saw the party slowly and then emphatically cut loose from its labourist traditions”, writes Gerry Hassan. “No longer was Labour characterized by trade union power and influence, economism, sectionalism, an obedience and deference to parliamentarianism and the traditions of the British state.” Instead New Labour attempted to “bypass the institutions of democracy” with its “belief in an authoritarian populism of spin and public manipulation.”

“Since Labour had never in its history actually been a socialist or social-democratic party, as the high tide of labourism receded it left behind a landscape that offered the opportunity for neoliberalism to emerge as the dominant credo of the party leadership.” So what could a Labour politics shorn of labourism look like that does not have the shape and character of New Labour? The answer, suggests Hassan, lies in rectifying the failure of all post-war Labour governments save Clement Atlee’s: to achieve a substantial redistribution of wealth.

The full table of contents of Soundings 45 (2010)

Utopian designs for the ideal society are both impractical and dangerous, warns Rein Müllerson in Vikerkaar. Yet this does not mean that there cannot be guidelines that might be adapted to the particularities of various societies. Only by finding the right balance between the “holy trinity” of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – may the world steer its way through the challenges of libertarianism and laissez faire.

The supposed antagonism between liberty and equality only arises if the two values are absolutized, writes Müllerson: most liberal democracies practice a “pendulum-style vacillation between the Scylla of unbridled markets and deregulation and the Charybdis of state interference”. Social divisions arise when market liberalism combines with social conservatism, and where emphasis on national identity papers over the cracks of economic inequality. This is where the third value – fraternity – is called for.

“In today’s societies this neglected characteristic plays a more important role than in yesterday’s world,” Müllerson argues. “Political and intellectual leaders often look for the national idea not in the brotherhood of their people […] but in the opposition to the external and internal Other.” Yet the state as embodiment of equality and fraternity faces serious challenge from globalization. “The unfettered global market tends to drag down the protection of economic and social rights to the level of the lowest common denominator.”

Also: Mikko Lagerspetz argues that the time may have come for fraternity (nowadays called “solidarity”): “Whereas the nineteenth century was in many ways the century of liberalism, and the twentieth century created the modern welfare state, what is the next challenge? In my view it would be solidarity.”

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 9/2010

In an issue of Index on music and censorship, the celebrated pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim explains why those who ban music are the ones who fear it most. In 2001, Barenboim was accused of “cultural rape” and branded a “fascist” in Israel for conducting the work of Richard Wagner as the second encore during a concert in Jerusalem.

“The decision to stop playing Wagner was taken by members of the [Palestine Philharmonic] orchestra after Kristallnacht and that was perfectly understandable and just, from my point of view, in 1938. But to continue with that now is arguably as bad as it would have been to continue to play Wagner from that day. […] Israel is a democratic society, there should be no place for such taboos.”

In 1999, together with Edward Said, Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble of young musicians hailing from across the Middle East. The orchestra is not able to perform in most of the countries represented by its members, but has enjoyed phenomenal critical acclaim elsewhere in the world. “The Divan came into existence and continues to develop because of the conflict, and it has not yet been fully able to push through its idea of accepting the narrative of the other, the point of view of the other. For that you need a yearning voice for justice and for compassion, from both sides.”

Contemporary Arab music: Did the “golden years” of Arab music beginning in the late 1940s really come to an end with the wars and dictatorships of the 1980s? Ethnomusicologist Khyam Allami sets out to establish whether there is any independent Arab music being produced today apart from “ensembles doing the standard instrumental repertoire and a couple of minor rock bands doing bad covers of the Egyptian diva Um Kulthum”.

Allami’s quest ends when he discovers the labels Incognito and Forward Music, both based in Beirut, and Eka3, which works out of Cairo, Beirut and Amman. The commercial label Rotana’s monopoly over distribution throughout the Arab world, combined with varyingly restrictive censorship regimes and a failure to enforce copyright, means non-mainstream independent Arab music faces an uphill struggle. Yet for Eka3 founder Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, the risks of commercial failure are worth taking “as long as there is something being said, that it’s not just breaking the rules for the sake of it. If it’s art, it’s art.”

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 3/2010

English playwright, actor and singer Noël Coward once observed that there are two sorts of people: those who appear on television and those who watch it. Is this disparaging view of television as a pacifying entertainment machine for women and the working class now going out of fashion? In an Ord&Bild issue on “Literature and genre”, Malin Nilsson enters a Swedish debate on whether the TV drama is the new and better novel. What is it, she asks, that has made the previously despised genre acceptable? What has happened so that the TV series “could suddenly be mentioned in the same sentence as Dickens and Dostoyevsky?”

With the introduction of the DVD box set, writes Nilsson, one no longer sees oneself as a passive receiver but as an “active consumer”. The sentence “I never watch television”, still very common in intellectual circles, no longer means that you have not seen The Wire or Mad Men. The self-image of someone who makes free, individual and informed choices, i.e. the opposite of a passive receiver, “seems to fit well into the middle-class identity of today; an identity that includes well-produced US drama series but still renounces the TV medium as such.”

The crisis of criticism: Norwegian literary critic Bernhard Ellefsen discusses another Swedish debate: is literary criticism in crisis? Recently, the journal 00tal published an issue on the changing conditions under which lit crit is produced: low authors’ fees, short deadlines, tabloid-thinking editors and a readership more interested in reality shows and the royal family than in literature. But much of the talk about crisis is deeply conservative, writes Ellefsen. What literary critics need to do is to regain their confidence. “We don’t have to agree, but as long as the interpretations and claims are powerful and assertive, people are forced to reflect.”

Also: Andreas Harbsmeier’s account of contemporary Danish literature in Eurozine’s “Literary perspectives” series.

The full table of contents of Ord&Bild 3/2010

The Wikileaks controversy has renewed debate around digital journalism and the growing power of social media. But Wikileaks is not as revolutionary as it may seem, writes Christian Christensen in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo), originally in Le Monde diplomatique – English edition.

“Wikileaks is something entirely different to Twitter and YouTube. […] Its power lies in the reader’s trusting the veracity of the information. […] There are literally hundreds of videos from Iraq and Afghanistan depicting western soldiers committing somewhat dodgy and often downright illegal and violent actions. But those have not caused anywhere near the mayhem triggered by one single video posted by Wikileaks.” Why not? he asks. Because the idea of a social media where anyone can share anything with anybody is attractive in theory, but information is only powerful when credible.

A second myth punctured by Wikileaks is that the nation-state is dying. Wikileaks is semi-officially based in Sweden where it can benefit from the legal protection of whistleblowers and anonymous sources. To decrypt the Baghdad video, it went to Iceland where a law has recently been passed making the country a haven for investigative journalism and free speech. “Wikileaks is not lawless. It just moves the game to places with other rules.”

A third myth dispelled by Wikileaks is that traditional journalism is virtually dead. They chose to take their information to The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel, precisely because of these papers’ journalistic competence, writes Christensen. “In a digital world constantly redefined as non-hierarchical, borderless and fluid, Wikileaks has reminded us that there are still structures, borders and laws that make a crucial difference.”

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 9/2010

In Kulturos barai, Béla Nóvé provides a brief history of Hungarian samizdat from 1977 to 1989. While political manifestos and essays had circulated among intellectuals, workers and students in Hungary since the early 1950s, samizdat – i.e. the clandestine printing and distribution of banned literature – really began to flourish in the country from 1977 onwards. In just over a decade, writes the former editor, the movement produced around 300 books and two dozen periodicals. “While Hungarian samizdat pales in comparison to the Soviet-Russian one, and certainly had less ‘mobilizing power’ than the independent Polish press, its intellectual force and radical engagement continue to be significant twenty years later.”

Debates on censorship in communist Europe became public through the meetings of the European Cultural Forum, designed to monitor compliance with the Helsinki commitments. The third meeting, following Madrid and Belgrade, was held in Budapest in November 1985. “Dissidents and human right activists, agents and secret cops, party bureaucrats and journalists were all ready to do their best,” remembers Nóvé. Yet the forum was bitterly criticized by dissidents like Miklós Haraszti for its “under-the-table diplomacy”. “Many dissidents in Budapest – and no doubt even more in Warsaw, Prague, Moscow and Bucharest – were disappointed about the outcome of the official Helsinki Forum, since they would have expected ‘loud solidarity instead of silent diplomacy’ from the West.”

The bonfire of the universities: Marion von Osten argues for placing the Bologna reforms in the context of the European border regime and its selective admission of “highly qualified” migrants; and Richard Münch explains why the exposure of German universities to purely economic demands will result in the increasing hierarchization of higher education.

The full table of contents on Kulturos barai 9/2010

The wave of sympathy that swept from Russia over Poland after the plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski has changed the relationship between Poland and Russia for the better, writes Reinhold Vetter in Osteuropa. The fact that the Polish delegation was on its way to a commemoration of the massacre in Katyn (where in 1940 the Soviet secret police killed thousands of members of the Polish military and intellectual elite) brought the issue to the attention of a broader public in Russia for the first time.

In contrast to the anti-Russian posturing of its national-conservative predecessors, Donald Tusk’s liberal-conservative government has, since 2007, striven for pragmatic cooperation between the two countries. The “Polish-Russian working group for difficult issues” has played a central role in debating the shared Polish-Russian history, and the historical assessment of the Katyn massacre is a key issue in the relationship between the two countries. “While in Poland there is the assumption that [Katyn] is a case of genocide as defined in Resolution 260 A (III), passed by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948,” writes Vetter, “in official Russia the predominant view is that it was a ‘standard’ crime that, unlike genocide, expires after a prescribed period of time.”

Recently, rapprochement can be noticed, Vetter observes, pointing to public appearances by Vladimir Putin that suggest his intention to admit Russia’s historical responsibility. Yet “Russia’s political leadership is approaching the historical truth only in small steps.”

Year in, year out: The disastrous forest fires near Moscow this summer attracted much media attention, yet huge expanses of Russian woodland burn every summer. The forestry department has its hands full just registering the fires; after an administrative reorganization and yet another round of cuts, the forestry authorities are completely paralysed, writes Ivan Blokov.

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 9/2010

Norwegian-American relations have traditionally been good, with especially close ties formed through emigration to the US and during WWII, writes Bjørn H. Amland. But in 2005, the Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg revealed to George W. Bush his intention to withdraw the last of the Norwegian supporting officers from Iraq. This during Bush’s congratulatory phone call on Stoltenberg’s election victory.

Since then, Stoltenberg and his aides have been busy re-establishing the former close ties. “Norway remained in the shadows until the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, declared on 9 October that the Peace Prize for 2009 had been awarded President Barack Obama. […] To Stoltenberg, this represented a golden opportunity to repair the relationship with the US, and he was quick to get on the phone and congratulate Obama, several hours before Jagland. The chairman of the Nobel committee had not informed the president about the prize because, as he said: ‘Waking up a president in the middle of the night is not something one does.'”

Norway still doesn’t have the good old direct contact, admits Amland, but Tor Tollesen, the president of one of the biggest clubs for Norwegian immigrants in Seattle, has no fear. “Though the US seems to think that Norway can take care of itself, should there be a strategically important situation – then the Americans are bound to turn up.”

Eurabia: If it hadn’t been for the Franks’ victory in The Battle of Poitiers (Tours) in France in 732, Europe would likely have been Muslim today, speculates Leif Tore Sædberg. He takes a closer look at the battles between religious and political interests in Europe and sets up a “what if” scenario. What would Europe have been like today without, for example, the Renaissance? Or what if we had not obtained the silkworm or learned Arabic numerals?

Also: Hallgeir Elstad on the attempt by church minister Rigmor Aasrud to break the centuries-old connection between Church and State in Norway.

The full table of contents of Syn og Segn 3/2010

Published 29 September 2010

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