The modern Mr Valiant-for-truth
“What is extraordinary about the current crisis of the European Union is that it concerns the crisis of a ‘democratic empire’, a voluntary quasi-federation of democratic states in which citizens’ rights and liberties are guaranteed and the democratic legitimation of the government constitutes a precondition for a country’s accession; and in which, in the interim, disappointment in democracy has become widespread.”
Thus Ivan Krastev in one of three substantial pieces in the new issue of Transit (Austria) on the political and economic prospects for European democracies mired in crisis. Krastev argues that southern Europe cannot be reformed along the lines of the eastern Europe model and that it will be voters in the North, not the South, who will ultimately block Germany’s plans for political union. Meanwhile, Jacques Rupnik looks at the lessons that can be learnt from central Europe and János Mátyás Kovács at new forms of eastern European capitalism.
Violence and religion: Sociologist of religion David Martin calls proponents of “an aggressive ‘new atheism'” to task for collapsing arguments over the relation between religion and violence into “mixed up case studies of religion and war taken from various epochs, different kinds of societies and abstract situations devoid of context”. In short: “Deceit is applauded as the heroic act of the modern ‘Mr Valiant-for-truth’.”
Martin insists that a “serious discussion of religion and violence demands systematic comparisons to be made across cultures”. However: “these are almost completely missing from the current debate.” His response is to revisit the Sermon on the Mount and the narrative of the Passion:
“The non-violence in the Sermon on the Mount, which is expanded upon in the narrative of the Passion, is the most difficult challenge of Christianity in view of the obvious consequences that its realization has for the continuation of a civilized and halfway peaceful existence and, indeed, for the survival of Christianity itself in a Europe that was threatened during the course of a millennium by hostile invaders.”
Also: A dossier on the Balkans as a laboratory of modernity with contributions by Diana Mishkova, Dessislava Lilova and Constantin Iordachi.
The full table of contents of Transit 43 (2013)
“Bankster” is the neologism of choice following the wave of banking scandals that has hit the European region of late, reports John Keane in openDemocracy. These range from criminal charges brought against officials responsible for overstating the extent of Greece’s debt, thus “contributing to the implosion of local markets”, to controversy over how the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 83 per cent owned by taxpayers, would foot the bill for its part in the Libor scandal.
Meanwhile: “At taxpayers’ expense, the banks that had recklessly fuelled the boom and bust rebounded by setting the austerity agenda that is now hurting the lives of millions of people and crippling the parliamentary democracies they once cherished.” Thus “democratic taxation states” are transformed into “post-democratic banking states”, writes Keane.
Make or break: The tenth anniversary of the Iraq war in March and Margaret Thatcher’s death on 8 April prompted much reflection on the controversial legacies of the war and the former British Prime Minister. openDemocracy founder and editor Anthony Barnett voiced his opinion on both. In an article published the day Thatcher died, he reminded readers of the crucial importance of North Sea oil for her reign.
Prior to which, he published two articles on 20 March, ten years to the day since the start of the Iraq war. In the first, he insists that “without the battering ram of the Murdoch press especially and media generally, Parliament could not have voted for the Iraq invasion”. Barnett’s conclusion: “Iraq was always a war on public opinion and this war is not over yet.” In a second article entitled “Shocked but not awed”, he outlines the ways in which the post-9/11 debate on the Iraq war significantly shaped openDemocracy as an editorial space.
More on openDemocracy
In an interview in Schweizer Monat, John Lanchester describes, with reference to London, how “the whole city has become a department store. The streets are shelves and the houses goods for sale.” This is the background against which the lives of his characters – the banker, the Hungarian childminder, the Polish builder, the artist and his assistant, the corner shop owner, the Zimbabwean traffic warden and the Nigerian footballer – are played out between the poles of displacement and homeliness.
Lanchester outlines how the 2008 housing market crash prompted “existential questions of self-worth” for London and Londoners alike. This had both down- and upsides: “The tragedy of the whole thing lies only in the pure materialistic excess of this life. And thus, leaving the City, the end of pomp and circumstance is for many a second chance too, including for the residents of Pepys Road.” (Pepys Road being the street in which Capital is set.)
More of the same? Nicholas Bradbury also critiques today’s peculiar brand of materialism in an interview in Kulturos barai (Lithuania): “When those preaching the free market are in fact using their power simply to protect their interests – or, in the case of the real intellectual naifs, to protect the interests of the already powerful – then the only freedom we might talk about is the freedom of the fox in the chicken run.” Which is precisely where the need for alternatives comes in and, simultaneously, new obstacles arise:
“You cannot divorce politics from economics, which is why the original term ‘political economy’ is more accurate. To say otherwise is to remove any possibility of debate about how society should work, which is of course the idea. Rather than asking ‘What should we be doing?’ all political discourse becomes reduced to variations on the theme of ‘How do we do more of the same?’ In other words, there are no moral problems, only technical ones. Adam Smith would turn in his grave.”
The current issue of Esprit features an extensive dossier on what appears to be terra incognita in France’s social and political geography: the périurbain or, the area of housing and industrial development located beyond the traditional working-class suburbs (banlieue) of big cities.
While the alleged over-representation of right-wing views in the périurbain during the 2012 elections remains disputed, Jacques Donzelot and Olivier Mongin summarize other charges to which périurbain dwellers must answer:
“Choosing the périurbain is a way of enjoying the advantages of the city centre, its facilities and prestige locations without the bother of having to contribute to the cost of their upkeep, since the périurbain dwellers pay taxes at a lower rate to dormitory communities. Whilst this also means high travel costs […], it is society as a whole that pays the price, in terms of the pollution created by commuting. And they have now compounded this twofold sin of selfishness with that of xenophobia, rejection of the other, rejection of the urban immigrant.”
Peace and quiet: A wide-ranging article by Michel Lussault examines the origins and growth of the périurbain, the result of French aspirations to ownership of a detached house and of successive governments’ tendency to favour both this form of social ascendancy and the creation of a society of property owners. However, he also acknowledges another major factor:
“Among the powerful drivers of French ‘periurbanization’, we must not forget the chronic refusal of the périurbains to cope with the density and social diversity of the inner perimeters and older suburban zones with their characteristic high-density occupation (the banlieues). This is one of the main reasons for the exodus from the central zones and associated problems; the oft-cited desire for peace and quiet derives from a negative view of the town.”
Beneath the maps: Yet the périurbain areas are by no means as structurally, socially or racially uniform as certain press reports have implied, a point taken up by Jean Rivière. His statistical analysis also indicates that the higher-than-average Front National vote is a general urban phenomenon as opposed to exclusively a characteristic of the périurbain areas.
The full table of contents of Esprit 3-4/2013
Ieva Lesinska‘s interview with the Israeli writer Etgar Keret covers everything from the personal to the political, and from how to write short stories and essays to the paradoxes of living in the secure environment of a country surrounded by violence.
Keret reminisces about the eastern European books his Polish-speaking parents read him as a child and the Israeli experience of socialism. However, the writer who compares his role as an author of short stories and essays to that of a “court jester in the land of the convinced”, is adamant that he could never write a manifesto:
“I think that many times in my essays I’m trying to show reality from a different angle. We live in a very tribal society. We have the left wing and the right wing, and they are very much like football club supporters. You know, the moment that you see somebody who doesn’t support your team, you don’t really listen to them. But if there’s somebody who builds an argument that is not against the way that you think, but just changes the way that you perceive reality, then there may be a chance for change.”
Also: Comment on UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to Riga and on the theft of Banksy’s Slave Labour in London and subsequent auction in Miami; plus an interview with Dissent editor Michael Walzer.
The full table of contents of Rigas Laiks 4/2013
Letras Libres (Spain) calls time on received ideas of liberalism and poses some fundamental questions concerning values, rights and liberties, and economics – with a view to redefining one of the most debated concepts in politics.
All things being equal: “Does liberalism succumb to the imperial temptation?” asks American historian Patrick Iber. Taking the United Kingdom and the United States as examples of states built on the liberal concept and, simultaneously, powers that have, at different times, ruled over the most powerful empires on Earth, Iber contends that the age of “liberal imperialists” is on the wane.
On the one hand, “expanding ties of trade were thought to hold civilizing potential and, by creating bonds of mutual dependency, to make conflict less likely.” But in the case of the British Empire, what began as a commercial empire was transformed gradually into an empire of territorial possession. American imperialism was in general not emphatically territorial and therefore succeeded where Great Britain failed, by achieving “open markets and compatible regimes without the costs of a formal occupation”.
However, Iber deems the Vietnam War and American support for Latin-American and other dictatorships to “put the lie to the idea of the United States as a benign empire”. And while liberal imperialism is anyway in decline, Iber concludes that, “a liberal order remains, as do the lessons of the last two centuries: exchange and contract between free nations, as between individuals, works best when power between them is close to equal.”
Nationalism: Ramón González Férriz asks if we can “liberate ourselves from nationalism”. Despite our liberal habits of consumption, there remains deeply anchored in occidental societies a phenomenon that can be summed up as “we are what we are and we won’t negotiate it”. Despite its “excessive confidence in the human being as a rational agent”, the liberal concept has not been able to shake itself free of this phenomenon.
Also: Manuel Arias Maldonado on the capacity of liberalism to confront the environmental challenge.
The full table of contents of Letras Libres 4/2013
In the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre, journalist Octavian Coman (473) tackles questions surrounding American gun-ownership. He speaks to Andrei Calciu (the son of the dissident priest Gheorghe Calciu), who expresses a clear preference for the American lifestyle over a “socialist and non-democratic” European way of life. Calciu teaches his son how to use a gun in the belief that “democracy can only be defended if the population has access to arms”.
Food: In a Dilema veche dossier (476), anthropologist Monica Stroe describes the “new Romanian consumers”. They eschew the food industry and seek out the figure of the authentic farmer instead. Facebook groups of “mums who can survive without supermarkets” have emerged too. In summary: “Be they political militants, or persons who concentrate on the building of own alimental forts, […] they know more than the food industry would like them to know, they overcame the admiration for the technological progress of tetrapak and see the farmer as a food producer again.”
“You are what you eat”, affirms Iuliana Alexa, describing the nutritional segregation of our society – now “not only a fashion but a cultural dictate”. Alexa questions whether the slow food movement, with its “exaltation of the local product and its ideology based on handicraft and creativity”, is capable of overcoming these societal frontiers.
Romanian nouvelle vague: At this year’s Berlinale, the Goldener Bär went to Calin Peter Netzer for his film Child’s Pose. This follows the success of Beyond the hills (Christian Mungiu) at Cannes in 2012, where it won in best actress and best screenplay categories. For anthropologist Vintila Mihailescu (476), it is the “language of an oppressive silence” that makes Child’s Pose distinctive. However, both films share a similar approach:
“In the face of human desperation sui generis, these films have in common the escape from immediate reality and the search for its real roots. They begin by looking for this source in communism, then in the ambiguous revolution against communism and finally in the actual ‘system’. […] By and by the search becomes increasingly sublime and begins to look beyond the ‘prime reasons’.”
The full tables of contents of Dilema veche 473-479 (2013)
Introducing a special German issue of new Eurozine partner Prostory (Ukraine), Kateryna Mishchenko plays on Joseph Beuys’ installation “Zeige deine Wunde” (Show your wound, 1974-75): “We are interested in the open wound of Ukrainian life – the emptiness and abandonment of the public sphere. We show this wound by providing glimpses of the symbolic and real world of the economically and socially oppressed.”
Streets of Kiev: The merging of media, styles and genres makes for a distinctive look and feel: Anatoliy Byelov’s colourful felt-tip pen drawings of street scenes from the European Football Championship 2012, at once cheerful and angst-ridden, are spread across the glossier pages of the opening section. Those of the closing section are punctuated by comparatively raw images of the same streets photographed in the cold light of more ordinary days.
27 years and counting: Writer and translator Nelia Vakhovska contributes a moving memoir of a “Chernobyl child” from the “fourth zone”. Scholar of culture and publicist Stas Menzelevskyi traces “the transformation of the trauma Chernobyl into a commodity” or even a brand, in the wake of films such as Oren Peli’s Chernobyl Diaries and Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s Nuclear Waste. Or indeed in that of the official day of remembrance (26 April), which was introduced, writes Menzelevskyi, with “the official aim of conveying what could be learnt in ecological, political and social terms [but] has increasingly become more and more negative, a source for the victims and traumata of the Ukrainian nation”.
The full table of contents of Prostory 6 (2013)
“Almost all of our conceptual designs are translatable into architectural form,” writes editor Roger Riewe in the Austrian architecture magazine GAM: “This richness of options puts all classic architectural elements – most especially the wall – up for renegotiation as features inherent to architecture.”
Spatial layers: Sabine Zierold points out that technological innovation has not only changed “the physical qualities of surfaces, but also the simultaneity of actual and virtual spatial layers and their interpenetration. The spatial boundary becomes a dynamic, temporal element subject to constant flux and develops the qualities of a medium in its own right.”
The writing on the wall: In Lisa Naumann’s project, “OpaQue”, virtual information from the library catalogue is projected to the outside walls of the Bauhaus University library in Weimar: “The search strings and book names entered over the course of the day form the basis for the graphical display and run like the final credits of a film across the facade at day’s end. These walls of writing thus engender new spaces that are aligned to the library and visually suspend the built spatial boundary.”
Discipline and punish: Joost Meuwissen shows how Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish had brief, yet remarkable effects on architecture in the early 1980s, citing prison designs by Rem Koolhaas and Carel Weeber. Meuwissen writes:
“It is remarkable how quickly the Foucauldian idea of a generalized prison system was adopted when it came to viewing prisons as something ordinary. In one of the design reports it was mentioned how the official representative of the [commissioning Government Agency] only considered imprisonment to be specifically relevant when considering the entire program: ‘After retribution and re-education had been successfully eliminated as justification for imprisonment, he emphasized the significance of moving toward a state of normality within prisons […] by seeking to make sure that the conditions inside prisons deviated from conditions outside as little as possible, aside from the unassailable deprivation of freedom.'”
The full table of contents of GAM 9 (2013)
Host dedicates its March issue to murder in both life and letters. Literary critic and rising star of Czech crime fiction Michal Sykora surveys the genre’s history, focusing on works in English. He stresses the importance of a lively plot that balances an eccentric crime and main character with basic requirements of plausibility.
In the 1960s, Josef Skvorecky was the first Czech writer to take crime fiction seriously. Sykora turns to him for a formula: “Of course, these days there are also greedy people and dilettantes writing crime fiction but new authors keep emerging who brilliantly fulfil the genre’s premise of a ‘combination of murder and fun’, while also saying something new about the world we live in.”
Real life: Vladimir Matousek, a retired Brno Chief Inspector, discusses real-life crime in the Czech Republic before and after 1989 – since when the crime rate has risen exponentially and the public attitude to the police has also changed: “It was as if suddenly the dividing line no longer ran between decent people and criminals but between the people and the police.” The influence of film, TV and the Internet concerns Matousek, since it puts ideas into the heads of would-be criminals and the constant presence of death desensitizes people. But by the age of 55, Matousek had enough: “I’ve seen too much human misery and while at a crime scene was all too aware of concrete human tragedies behind the cases.”
The (im)perfect assassination: A tongue-in-cheek guide to “social murder” by Slovak writer Dusan Taragel covers targets ranging from Philip II of Macedon and Julius Caesar to John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. Taragel considers “social murder” an art as complex and demanding as any other, requiring meticulous planning. Yet the moments following the act can be of equal importance for the assassin: “He should give a speech: nothing long, a few apt comments will suffice. For this reason alone I regard Abraham Lincoln’s assassination as botched. […] Although the assassin John Wilkes Booth was well dressed and had picked a suitable venue, he spoiled everything by bolting in an undignified manner after the act, getting himself entangled in a flag and falling over, breaking a leg.”
The full table of contents of Host 3/2013