Secular noise reduced to a whisper

16 December 2008
Only in en
Index on Censorship investigates what Bush-Cheney did to civil liberties; Esprit welcomes America's first Chicagoan president; Arena asks whether there will be a Left after capitalism; Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) writes Bush's epitaph; Samtiden scrutinizes racism in Norway; Dilema veche calls for a debate on anti-Semitism in Romania; Osteuropa weighs up causes and effects of the Georgian war; Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) reports on parallel realities in Israel; and Magyar Lettre Internationale prefers literary canons in the plural.

Index on Censorship 4/2008

“One of the great tests for Barack Obama will be how far and how quickly he rolls back the Bush administration’s expansion of executive power”, writes Index on Censorship editor Jo Glanville in a new issue surveying the state of civil liberties in the US after eight years of Bush-Cheney.

In a compelling piece of investigative journalism, Patrick Radden Keefe details how the Bush-Cheney administration has overridden laws on domestic surveillance. In 2005, a report by journalists James Risen and Eric Lichtblau (who also writes in this issue) revealed that, following 9/11, George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance. Then, despite having won a Congress majority in 2006, the Democrats approved a Republican bill “euthanizing” the Foreign Surveillance Act of 1978. “The potential political benefits of adopting so abstract and complex a cause as privacy and individual liberty do not justify the potential political risks of being tarred as soft on national security”, Radden Keefe concludes.

In the same section, Rick Piltz describes how the Bush government manipulated communications on climate change using a method pioneered by the tobacco industry decades earlier: “It wasn’t necessary for the government to ‘win’ the debate about the reality of gobal warming, it was only necessary to create the appearance of a divided science community”. And Lawrence Krauss details the PR game played by supporters of intelligent design, while Jameel Jaffer writes that the full story of human rights abuses during the War on Terror has yet to emerge.

Twenty years fatwa: Kenan Malik claims that Salman Rushdie’s critics lost the battle but won the war. The argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case – that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures – is now widely accepted. “These days the radical, secular clamour, which found an echo in The Satanic Verses, has been reduced to a whisper.”

Continuing the focus: Peter Mayer, director of Penguin Books, on the crisis following the publication of The Satanic Verses; Bernard Henri-Lévy on how the fatwa ushered in an era of retreat from the spirit of the Enlightenment; and Salil Tripathi on why succumbing to notions of religious offence stifles debate.

The full table of contents of Index of Censorship 4/2008

Esprit 12/2008

A Chicagoan has, for the first time, been elected president. Barack Obama, writes Marc-Olivier Padis, is the perfect representative of what Norman Mailer called “the last great American city”.

Avoiding the identity driven politics of black leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Obama has instead emphasized opportunity, civil rights and an inclusive sense of community. This owes much to the culture of Chicago, in the nineteenth century a common destination for freed slaves moving north to find work in the growing industries. Here, the political energy once devoted to the battle against slavery was redeployed to fight for workers’ rights. Chicago is also home to the “community organizing” movement that brought Obama to Chicago as a young graduate, a form of political action based around “empowering” social groups.

What can Europe learn from Obama’s victory? The most obvious lesson is that voter apathy is not inevitable; a sufficiently inspiring candidate can increase turnout. Also, writes Padis, this could mark the definitive end of 1960s radicalism as a political force, replaced by a limited and practical politics in theory more limited, but in practice more just and more effective.

More on Obama and the US: Sylvie Laurent considers Obama’s rhetoric, which blends the tropes of church sermons with those of the civil rights movement; and Malika Zeghal writes of America’s young Muslims, caught between their parents’ heritage and the suspicion caused by the War on Terror.

The financialization of charity: Joël Roman considers the relationship of government to non-governmental organizations. He takes as starting point Cimade, a group whose ethos involves living alongside the immigrants they are helping. Previously recognized by the French government, they are now under threat from a rightwing administration uncomfortable about their work in defence of undocumented migrants. The case highlights the tension within organizations working with governments, caught between their ideals and a market driven world of neutrality and quantifiable results. The “financialization” of charitable groups has been accelerating since the 1980s: is there any way out?

The full table of contents of Esprit 12/2008

Arena 6/2008

The new issue of Swedish Arena is entitled “After capitalism”. However, the subtitle makes clear that this should not be interpreted as a bold proclamation of a historic fact, but rather as a sceptical inquiry into a possible but still uncertain future: “Is the financial crisis a chance for the Left?”

In his regular column, Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman hopes for a new New Deal: “Can Barack Obama really usher in a new era of progressive policies? Yes, he can. […] It would be fair for the new administration to point out how conservative ideology, the belief that greed is always good, helped create this crisis. What F.D.R. said in his second inaugural address – ‘We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics’ – has never rung truer.”

Jonas Sjöstedt, former MEP for the Swedish Left Party, seems less confident. In interview he points to the “unparalleled” budgetary and trade deficits that will minimize the space for reforms in the US. In general, the Left has been caught unprepared by the financial crisis, says Sjöstedt. Whether it will be able to make use of the chance depends on its capacity to rethink: “The Social Democrats have already more or less given up on replacing capitalism with a different economic system […] and the Left to the left of Social Democracy is still struggling with the afterquakes of the Russian revolution and the fall of the Wall.”

Blame it on postmodernism? Historian Sara Edenheim, historian of ideas Anders Burman, and poet and architect Lars Mikael Raattamaa write on a related but slightly different issue: the problematic relation between postmodernism and the political Left. Right and Left alike accuse Postmodernism of having destroyed or undermined everything from art and feminism to education and “true values”. But the Left needs postmodernism, writes Burman: “The fact that the Left has been unable to formulate concrete political alternatives to the neoliberal and neoconservative hegemony might lead to the conclusion that today there is radical theory but no radical politics. However, everything seems to indicate that theory with postmodern influences actually furthers the reappearance of a radical political practice.”

The full table of contents of Arena 6/2008

Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 12/2008

“Unless Obama in the course of the next four years demonstrates hitherto unknown sides to his personality, George W. will be remembered as one of America’s greatest presidential failures”, writes Remi Nilsen. Oliver Stone has already “honoured” the US president with a film adding his voice to the chorus of memories. In W., Stone’s interpretation of George W. Bush is of a slightly dense guy who’s cool enough but not exactly gifted.

However, Nilsen is sceptical of this portrayal of Bush as just “gullible”, which implies the combination of dumb, yet kind. With reference to Alfred Jarry’s satire Ubu Roi, Nilsen points to the many examples of Ubuesque actions on Bush’s track record – stupid and unkind, even “downright evil”. Such as invading Iraq without a feasible plan for the invasion; confiscating Saddam’s fortune to let it circulate freely among people who greedily exploit the situation; promising rewards to poor Afghans to denounce “terrorists”, thus randomly sending hundreds to be interned in Guantánamo, Bagram or the many hidden prisons. Stone’s portrayal is much too kind, concludes Nilsen.

Censorship: Project Censored gives “awards” for the newsworthy items most censored or given lowest priority. Most of this year’s stories in the US relate to the war in Iraq and the War on Terror. Kim Bredesen finds it worrying that highly acute and sensitive issues are treated this way, that the media in the US don’t report on what happens when the cameras are turned off.

Also: Simen Øyen and Stein Andersen on how it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; and Rune V. Harritshøj interviewing Argentine author Uki Goñi, who has just published a new version of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina.

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 12/2008

Samtiden 4/2008

“The worst thing you can call someone is ‘racist'”, writes Samtiden editor Cathrine Sandnes, quoting a Norwegian social anthropologist. But is it? “For my part, I find it a lot worse being called a ‘Thai-whore’ than a ‘racist'”. Sandnes questions the new trend which makes racism a relative concept and allows degrees of acceptable racism. “Why do I imagine that, in spite of everything, it was safer being a coloured Norwegian in the seventies than today?”, she asks. “For all I know it was just because I knew the codes back then, as one does as a kid. They called me ‘yellow’, I called them ‘racist’. They screamed ‘bought and paid for’, I screamed that they were so ugly no one would have paid for them.” But she never experienced that she didn’t have the right to defend herself, that she was required to accept “the odd dysphemism” in order to avoid making waves.

The good Norwegian: Terje Tvedt writes about the Norwegian self-image as supported and partly constructed by the leading media institution, NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting Company). Annually for over thirty years, Norwegians have dug deep in their pockets to donate to charity in an event called “the TV-action”. Here, local communities have a generosity competition aired in a marathon broadcast on national TV. The image of the generous Norwegian is stroked and worshipped to the point where he becomes a saint with the ability to rescue millions of starving people somewhere in Africa in an afternoon. This form of journalism “normalizes the absurd and makes the extreme a daily occurrence”, writes Tvedt.

Inequality: Marina Hobbel describes a reality where highly educated immigrants are not considered for jobs outside the service sector: “If I remind people that I’m really an academic and a writer, it seems remote to them. I’m not Norwegian, and that’s what counts.”

The full table of contents of Samtiden 4/2008

Dilema veche 247-250 (2008)

There are two main ways to define anti-communism. The first states that Soviet society was not socialist, the other claims it was. G. M. Tamas, writing in Dilema veche issue number 247, leans heavily towards the former stance in a critique of a speech given by Andrei Plesu in Sofia. Plesu responds by stating that one cannot separate the ideas behind communism from what really happened in USSR, China, and eastern Europe, and that Tamas’s view of Soviet socialism as nothing more than a deformation of Marxist theory is too simplistic.

European solidarity? The European Commission has approved financial rescue plans for wealthy countries such as France, Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, Sweden, and Denmark. This smacks of preferential treatment among Europe’s financial brotherhood. Mircea Vasilescu wonders if the newly admitted, less affluent member states are likely to reap benefits similar to those being extended to the better off members.

Anti-Semitism: Vasilescu calls for a public debate about the significance of anti-Semitism in Romania in issue number 248. A Jewish cemetery was vandalized by a group of teenagers wanting to reenact a video clip. But Vasilescu has his doubts about the thoroughness of the police investigation and criticizes the failure of the Romanian president to publicly declare solidarity with the Jewish community.

Also: Dan Boicea writes about the Romanian consumer in issue number 247, revealing that the majority of Bucharest’s inhabitants spend eighty per cent of their income on shopping; in issue number 248, Cezar Paul-Badescu relates the unlikely creation of a tasteful musical TV show which is also sophisticated and accessible; and in issue number 250, Andrei Plesu compares the post-totalitarian state of the Iraqis with that of the Romanians after the fall of Ceausescu, concluding that the Iraqis will be in need of the same long-term therapy.

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 247-250 (2008)

Osteuropa 11/2008

Is it business as usual in EU-Russia relations? The ostentatious activity of the political and media circus after the latest Caucasian war are impeding a thorough reflection of the events, lament the editors of Osteuropa. Profound functional deficits in the political system of Georgia have come to light; and in the German media one can observe the resurrection of the “Cold War”: “All the Scholl-Latours of this world, whose world view is cemented between Berlin blockade and Cuba crisis, were asked for commentaries. A sorry sight.”

Reasons for the war are numerous, but are fundamentally rooted in the “deep frozen” conflicts resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia, Lilia Shevtsova writes, is governed by an authoritarian regime; and via the war in Georgia it finally ruled off its orientation towards the West. The logic of an authoritarian regime led Russia to understand Ukraine’s and Georgia’s prospective NATO entry as a threat: “It might sound paradoxical, but the ‘external’ revenge of the Kremlin is in fact an attempt to obtain the internal status quo. But this attempt is doomed.” The question of how to perceive the world and the constitution of society is, according to Shevtsova, central to the recent Russian military action. If Russia leaves Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia or even Ukraine to the western sphere of influence, its own system is at risk:

“If Ukraine were to become part of the western hemisphere and develop like Poland or even Slovenia, the Kremlin would be deprived of the legitimation for its authoritarian regime. And if Ukraine were able to make it, why should a country as culturally related as Russia also not be able to become democratic and prospering?”

Also: Egbert Jahn analyzes causes and effects of the Georgian war; and Mira Sovakar shows how civil society activists are convinced that peace and stability can only be obtained by developing stable democratic structures.

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 11/2008

Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) 12/2008

In the German edition of Le Monde diplomatique, Ramallah-based journalist Peter Lagerquist notes that the riots in Acre last October were born from “entirely parallel perceptions of reality” in Israel. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – along with the world media – was surprised how in Acre, the “shining example of co-existence”, an upheaval could have left both Arabs and Jews injured, damaged houses and shops and caused Arab families to flee from their homes. An Arab-Israeli who dared to drive his car through a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood on Yom Kippur was the starting point for week-long violence.

While many Jews justify violence with hurt religious feelings, Arab residents complain about the delayed arrival of the police and discriminatory treatment by the officers. Everyday discrimination of the Arab population is rooted in the Jewish perception that the Arabs are strangers in Israel, writes Lagerquist, quoting poet Yitzak Laor: “Part of them think that we have to be nice to the strangers, part think that the strangers have to be expelled.”

Lagerquist concludes: “What appears to be a contradiction, in reality is not: According to Olmert’s way of thinking, a situation in which Arabs live on a different material and political level from their Jewish neighbours is co-existence. Thus it is not a riot when [an Arab] is chased by a mob in Acre. A riot connotes the breakdown of a larger socio-legal order; in Israel, Jews beating up an Arab is not a breakdown of the larger order.”

Further articles: Lucien Sève on how the financial crisis could be overcome with “Marxist morality”; and Federico Santopinto on why European foreign policy seems to work at random: “While the European Commission spends millions in Georgia on peace-keeping and anti-arms trade programmes, EU member countries swamp the Caucasian republic with munitions.”

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin) 12/2008

Magyar Lettre Internationale 71 (2008)

The winter issue of Magyar Lettre Internationale carries a section on national literary canons. In a text based on a public debate, literary critics discuss whether an official Hungarian canon is necessary for Hungarian national identity and for teaching literature today. Is it not better, they ask, to speak of a plurality of canons for the plurality of literary mainstreams?

The focus includes György Dalos‘s laudatio to Romanian-German author Richard Wagner on the latter’s receipt of the Georg Dehio prize:

“Richard Wagner’s failed existences stream out of all corners of the former Eastern Bloc, to flood the boulevards of the golden West”, writes Dalos. “They carry with them the baggage of their history; on one level the burden of oppression, the silhouette of the dead tyrant at the back of their minds, debates in cramped pubs between the sixties and the eighties, the content of which barely anyone can recall; they bring with them petty jealousies, suspicions about informers, and in their nightmares cultivate Urängste about freedom […] They end up in a society that has excepted them unconditionally, but which, with its natural and egocentric cult of freedom, has never been completely familiar to them. What is multiculturalism, if not this?”

More on national canons: As a statue is erected to a writer idolized by the populist Right, the poet and literary historian Szilárd Borbély comments ironically that each writer should get a statue; novelist Mihály Kornis discusses the influence of Mihaly Babits, editor of the journal Nyugat (“West”), on the development of clasical modernism in Hungary; Daniela Strigl defends Austrian literature from being appended to the German canon (an essay in the Eurozine series “Literary perspectives“).

Also: In a section on “The Other”, Achille Mbembe locates the power and originality of postcolonial thought and Jürgen Habermas dismantles the opposition between multiculturalism and Enlightenment fundamentalism; while in the commentary section, Endre Bojtár, Gábor Csordás, László Rajk, Ákos Szilágyi and Gáspár Miklós Tamás discuss ’68 East and West, and Lettre founder Antonín J. Liehm talks in interview about the “provincialism of major cultures” and the idea of an international journal.

The full table of contents of Magyar Lettre Internationale 71 (2008)

Next review

We would like to wish all our readers an enjoyable holiday season! The next review will appear on 13 January 2009.

Published 16 December 2008

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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