Praising ordinary glories

25 September 2013
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In openDemocracy, Romania’s post-communist revolution begins with Rosia Montana; Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) finds the dream of a two-state solution in shatters, 20 years after the Oslo Accords; Free Speech Debate agrees with Mark Zuckerberg: online connectivity is a basic human right; Sens public remains optimistic about the fate of the public sphere; in New Humanist incoming editor Daniel Trilling confronts Richard Dawkins; Akadeemia assumes that an ability to believe is inherent in the human intellect; Letras Libres celebrates Camus’ 100th birthday; Dialogi invites vibrant polemics on culture, the sector of the future; and Il Mulino speaks to Vittorio Gregotti, one of the greatest personalities of Italian architecture.


“A new law going through the Romanian parliament allowing a Canadian mining company to forcefully expropriate the homes of citizens in order to construct Europe’s biggest gold mine is inspiring some of the country’s most significant protests since the fall of communism”, reports Claudia Ciobanu in openDemocracy (UK).

The slogan of the protests: “The revolution begins with Rosia Montana.” Rosia Montana is the village over which, for the past 15 years, plans for the vast mining project – giant cyanide pool included – have loomed. As of 1 September, when tens of thousands hit the streets of Bucharest following the parliamentary proceedings, the situation intensified:

“The campaign to save Rosia Montana has grown into a social movement of countrywide proportions. And this is an extraordinary claim to make for a post-socialist country where social activism is weak, where people are only now starting to acquaint themselves to the idea that the public space belongs to them.”

Of coexistence: 20 years after the first Oslo Accords, veteran Middle East reporter Margarida Santos Lopes returns to Jerusalem in search of “any Israelis and Palestinians who still believe in peace”. She is immediately struck by the increase in West Bank Jewish settlements and the 441-mile-long “separation fence”. However, the stories she relays are “of coexistence”.

Sheikh Jarrah is a Jerusalem neighbourhood where Jews and Arabs once protested against settlers evicting Palestinians from their homes. There Lopes dines with the Israeli Rami Elhanan, a leading member of the Parents Circle-Family Forum (PCFF), an organization that “unites bereaved relatives in both camps”, and his best friend, the Palestinian Bassam Aramin. Both have lost young children in the conflict.

Elhanan is conscious that “some people consider that ‘normalization’ is worse than occupation, because it damages the struggle for freedom”. Yet he concludes: “Nobody can recriminate against people like us who paid the highest price possible.”

Also: In openDemocracy Russia, Peter Pomerantsev bills contemporary Ukrainian writers as “Europe’s grittier Latin Americans, mixing magical realism with domestic abuse, folklore and mafia”.

More about openDemocracy


In the Norwegian edition of Le Monde diplomatique, Frida Skatvik takes stock of the Oslo Accords, twenty years after the legendary handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yassir Arafat in September 1993.

The deal, negotiated in secret by Norwegian diplomats, was never designed as a permanent peace treaty but as a peace process. Much of the critique has focused on this: solutions to most controversial issues, such as the final borders between the two states, the “indivisible” city of Jerusalem, access to water, Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees, were all postponed until after a trial period of five years.

“It would have been unrealistic to draft the Oslo Accords as a permanent peace treaty,” says Mona Juul, one of the Norwegian diplomats behind the deal, to Skatvik. “The agreement has to be interpreted in the light of its historical context.” This was the time of the first Intifada. The United States had no relation whatsoever to the PLO and in Israel any contact to this “terror organization” was strictly forbidden. “So, to think that the first real negotiations between Israel and PLO could solve all the difficult issues would have been unrealistic.”

Hanan Ashrawi: In interview, Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator who contributed to the establishment of the Oslo process in 1991, explains to Truls Lie why she later decided to withdraw from the negotiations: “the relations of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians remained asymmetrical”. That’s not the way to negotiate, she says, and the agreement consequently “led to a catastrophe”. However, Ashrawi doesn’t think that the Norwegians should be ashamed of the Oslo Accords: “I don’t blame a third party that tried their best. I blame the Palestinians. We should never have signed the treaty.”

Today, says Ashrawi, we need a concrete action plan; not more agreements “that Israel anyway will disregard”, no Oslo 3. Real obligations are the only thing that will help, combined with sanctions that make Israel understand that they can’t continue with their current policy.

The full table of contents of Le Monde Diplomatique (Oslo) 9/2013


Liking a page on Facebook is now a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, following a US federal appeals court ruling of last week. The day before the ruling, Free Speech Debate (UK) published a timely piece by Robert Reich. The Stanford political scientist explains why the “norms, laws, and institutions” developed in democracies to safeguard freedom of speech and association “must of necessity adapt with the forward march of technological innovation”.

Reich contends that “the capacity to speak and associate online – basic connectivity – should be seen not as a service available to consumers in the marketplace but as something approaching a civic entitlement”. And although “the thornier issues of privacy remain unsettled”, this doesn’t preclude him from assessing the prospects of connectivity coming “to be seen as an essential element of public infrastructure” with reference to Facebook’s chairman and chief executive himself:

“How close are we to such an attitude toward connectivity? In summer of 2013, no less than Mark Zuckerberg declared, his business interests notwithstanding, that connectivity is a basic human right.”

More about Free Speech Debate


Sens public (France) discovers that, far from having had its day, the public sphere is currently undergoing something of a renaissance. Indeed, in the lead article entitled “Praising ordinary glories”, political philosopher Étienne Tassin insists on the actuality of Hannah Arendt‘s concept of the public sphere as a “site for the free association of citizens that safeguards freedom of speech.”

Veils and minarets: Nilüfer Göle analyses the ways in which Islam disrupts what is in her view a secularized public space. Which nerve of our society is hit when Islamic women wear veils and minarets dare to alter the skyline of European cities? With which sensitivities do the protagonists of the neo-populist movements play?

“Religion, and Islam in particular, questions today the presuppositions, the consensual values that constitute the European public sphere. The actor and their religious behaviour are a blind spot in the public debate because the cognitive system and the secular doxa of modernity deny them their legitimacy.”

Financial networks and social activism: Saskia Sassen compares the impact that two kinds of socio-technical formations are increasingly having on the public sphere: electronic financial networks and globally networked, local social activist movements. Both have the power to transform existing political and economical systems:

“Financial markets and electronic activism reveal two parallel developments associated with particular technical properties of the new ICTs. They also reveal a third, radically divergent outcome, one I interpret as signalling the weight of the specific social logics of users in each case.”

The full table of contents of Sens Public 15-16 (2013)


After “forty-four issues, 3,000,000 words, 3,000 articles commissioned, 93 articles written, 9,500,000 visits to the website, 29 rationalist Christmas shows, 1 God Trumps game”, and eight years as editor, Caspar Melville takes his leave of New Humanist (UK).

Debate, reflection and new ideas: Incoming editor Daniel Trilling, previously assistant editor of the British centre-left weekly New Statesman, sketches out his vision for the magazine.
Objecting to Richard Dawkins’ recent tweet – “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though” –, Trilling outlines three key principles for the discussion of religion: the necessity of recognizing that “some ‘criticism’ of religion is racist”, that “religious believers are no less intelligent than non-believers”, and that “the key to political progress is an ability to find common ground between people of different religious beliefs and none”.

God in the dock: Bertrand Russell’s biographer Alan Ryan relates “the emotional force” of the British philosopher’s thought to the atheist sentiment that “there is no God, and I hate him.” The point being, continues Ryan, that it is “intolerable to think that some being might deliberately have created a world in which we suffer constant anxiety, die of painful diseases when we do not die of violence, and suffer vastly more acute pains from heartbreak and disappointment than the pleasures of love and realized ambition can justify. If there were a God, he, she, it or they would be tried for crimes against humanity”.

(Real) legal action: The regular feature “Godless globe” reports that Kenyan lawyer Dola Indidis has “petitioned the International Court of Justice to overturn Pontius Pilate’s conviction of Jesus Christ”. Undeterred by the Kenyan High Court’s refusal to hear the case, in his support, Indidis cites the case of Joan of Arc, “whose execution conviction was overturned by a Papal court after her death”. The ICJ has yet to confirm receipt of Indidis’ petition.

The full table of contents of New Humanist 5/2013


Peet Lepik elaborates in Akadeemia (Estonia) upon his hypothesis that an ability to believe is inherent in the human intellect. Lepik’s semiotic approach means treating belief in its broadest sense, religious belief and atheism as sign systems. His stated aim: to reveal “the ‘grammar’ of belief and atheism.” However, as for atheism:

“Strictly speaking, an integrated, scientifically substantiated concept of atheism cannot even exist, as the Enlighteners and Marxists have never escaped the vicious circle according to which ‘atheism is the negation of God and it asserts the existence of the human namely through this negation’ (Marx).”

Lepik concludes by noting that “it is particularly interesting to observe how Marx (and his disciples) have furnished the orientational, teleological and energetic characteristics of atheism, and how the dedicative structure of thinking has also given birth to earthly gods”.

A century of newspapers: Ragne Kouts and Maarja Lohmus report on their analysis of the leading Estonian, Russian and Finnish newspapers from the past century. They trace how the level of social stability fluctuated within very different societies through time, as far as this was expressed in Eesti Päevaleht/Rahva Hääl, Pravda and Helsingin Sanomat.

Kouts and Lohmus show the latter to have “fulfilled the function of supporting democracy during the whole period analysed” – something that the Estonian newspaper could only achieve during periods of independent statehood. Pravda, however, is the exception in this regard: “no such role could be noticed during the twentieth century.”

Come the turn of the twenty-first century and the dawn of the “entertainment society”, however, and all three papers have one significant trend in common, as the political sphere is increasingly overlooked in favour of “‘softer’ topics”.

The full table of contents of Akadeemia 9/2013


To celebrate Albert Camus’ 100th birthday on 7 November, Letras Libres (Spain) republishes Tony Judt’s essay “The reluctant moralist: Albert Camus and the discomforts of ambivalence”, which first appeared in 1998. Judt highlights Camus’ incessant “concern for justice”, citing the author’s growing reluctance towards the politics of epuration (purge) in post-war France (unambiguously supported by his fellow leftist intellectuals), his criticism of Soviet human rights crimes and his attitude towards the civil war in Algeria:

“Calling things by their name, speaking of what you wished to speak and in the way you needed to was no easy matter in the intellectual community of Paris at the height of the Cold War – especially if, like Camus, you retained a certain nostalgia for the sympathetic embrace of the Left and suffered from a measure of intellectual insecurity in addition. But […] Camus moved on; from the familiar soil of conviction and ‘objectivity’ to the lonely, rocky perch of an unpopular, untimely partisanship, that of the spokesman for the obvious. In his own words, again confided to his notebooks a year or so before the appearance of L’Homme revolte: ‘One of my regrets is to have sacrificed too much to objectivity. Objectivity, sometimes, is an accommodation. Today things are clear, and we must call totalitarian those things that are totalitarian, even socialism. In a manner of speaking, I shall never again be polite.'”

The first man: In his unfinished, posthumously published autobiography Le premier homme, Camus wanted to counter the accusations of him being a “bourgeois who bashfully hides his roots”, that Sartre made after the publication of L’Homme revolte, writes José María Ridao. In his autobiographical project, abruptly cut short by a fatal car accident in 1960, Camus describes the extreme poverty of his childhood, thus “freeing himself from the burden of the shame and from the shame of having felt shame.”

The full table of contents of Letras Libres 9/2013


Primoz Jesenko draws attention in his editorial in Dialogi (Slovenia) to the demise of specialized art criticism:

“Today, non-civilized and non-cultured states of mind can go a long way, including the democratically elected parliament; also it is rather easy to publish a book in Slovenia or to enter into the media, and some are adept at exploiting this situation. At the same time, we approach the West in a different way: specialized arts criticism has been absent in the foreign press for a long time, and now it is almost entirely ousted in Slovenia as well. It is not in the interest of capital.”

The filtering out of independent theatre criticism from the media over recent years does not bode well for the political stage either, “as many performances are left with no written records in the press. This silence is not wise, but a trace of ignorance. The excuses provided are numerous but the space (in heads too) continues to narrow.”

The full table of contents of Dialogi 3-4/2013


In interview with Arnaldo Bagnasco, Italian architect and art critic Vittorio Gregotti distinguishes between “critical internationalism and financial globalism”. Until the 1970s, there was a certain solidarity between Gregotti himself, Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe: “We met for two or three days in order to discuss certain issues and then we went back to work […] We tried to position ourselves within a kind of critical internationalism, which differs greatly from the current globalism”.

“Successful” architecture nowadays has abandoned three important cornerstones, he says: “the modification of the present as a project of critical confrontation with the context; the capacity to read with precision between the lines; and the ability to regard the architectural oeuvre as a metaphor for eternity.”

Also: Albrecht von Lucke shows
why European politics can no longer be forced into the classical left-right paradigm and how both the Left and the Right in Germany have so far failed to deal convincingly with the eurocrisis.

The full table of contents of Il Mulino 4/2013

Published 25 September 2013

Original in English
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