Archive for the ‘politics’ category

Complex belonging

October 22, 2018

So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American  concept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.

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The era of aggressive obsessions

July 31, 2018

Those of us – and I know this includes me – who spend too much time on certain social media platforms come to witness one thing very quickly: that we live in an age of irate obsession. This hit me very starkly on my most recent holiday, which was in South Carolina. The state is historical and very beautiful, and Charleston in particular is one of my very favourite cities in all the world; I may publish some photos from there presently.

But South Carolina is also the reddest of red states in the US. ‘Red’ in America does not have the same connotation that it has in Europe. It refers to the colour of the Republican Party. The Democrats are blue, and so, to take an example, Massachusetts is a ‘blue state’.

Back to the red South Carolina. The state has voted Republican in 13 of the last 14 national elections. In 2016 Donald Trump got 1,155,389 votes here, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 855,373. But while that was a solid majority for the current US President, Clinton’s share still came to over 40 per cent of the vote.

But within these camps, the tone is becoming more and more divisive. Like elsewhere in the US, success within a political division now increasingly depends on aspiring politicians moving as far away from the centre as possible. Just before I arrived there, a long-standing South Carolina Republican Congressman, Mark Sanford, lost the local primary election to an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he had not been wholly obsequious to his President, and so he found that political moderation did not pay. In neighbouring Georgia there is a Republican candidate for Governor who boasts that he owns a truck so he can personally round up illegal immigrants, and he has been running a television advertisement ‘in which he points a double-barreled shotgun at a teenage boy asking to go on a date with one of his daughters.’

It’s not all on one side: in New York the long term Congressman Joe Crowley has just been ousted by the self-proclaimed socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is young, inspiring, charismatic – but certainly not seeking out the political centre.

Of course this centrifugal political tendency is not just in evidence in America, though the rhetoric there is particularly stark. It’s all over us everywhere, including the UK (where it’s all mostly about people aiming abuse at those who disagree with them about Brexit) and much of Europe. In fact, just not being on the high-volume off-centre edge of the spectrum itself qualifies you for abuse right now, as the ‘centrist dad’ epithet illustrates.

Is this all a product of the social media era? Have we all become locked into our echo chambers in which we can only compete with others by out-shouting their tirades of anger? Is this the inevitable grade inflation of indignation and outrage in which there are only totally right and abominably wrong opinions, with nothing in between? Is this the era in which obsession has moved from stamp collecting into politics (and everything else) while also acquiring the garments of visceral anger, often over nothing much in particular? And has this been transferred into our lives more generally, so that we can only ever either adore or despise people?

In America I watched some of the news networks, and watched how everyone was really only articulate when expressing hatred of someone or something. Surely, surely there must be some way of extracting ourselves from this madness.

The academy in politics?

May 29, 2018

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my mid-teens. At the time I was in a German secondary school, and the then West German Economics Minister was Professor Karl Schiller. Schiller was an academic economist of some distinction, and he became a key figure, first of the CDU-SPD ‘grand coalition’ under Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, and then of the SPD-FDP coalition government of Willy Brandt. He was known for policies that he summarised with the slogan ‘as much competition as possible, as much planning as necessary.’

Right now, as various professors are considered for the job of Prime Minister of Italy, it is maybe apposite to reflect on the role of academics in career politics. There have been a few politicians who, when their political careers looked to be over, easily settled into academic life: Larry Summers and Roy Jenkins are examples. Some have travelled in the opposite direction, but not many: apart from Karl Schiller, good examples would be Ireland’s last three Presidents: Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Is this because universities are seen as hothouses for theory rather than operational action? Or is it the case that, as one commentator has suggested, ‘many very clever people would make very bad politicians.’

The role of academics as political advisers is widely accepted, but not so much their capacity for political leadership. In a world that is becoming hugely complex in economic, social and technological contexts, would academic politicians have the capacity for a better, or worse, understanding of these complexities? Or should the academy stay away from this sort of thing altogether?

Icon of another age

May 2, 2018

If he were still alive, Ralf Dahrendorf would have celebrated his 89th birthday yesterday.

I fear that many readers of this blog will not know who he was, but Dahrendorf was a key political and intellectual figure of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Hamburg in 1929, and in the course of a full life he was active in the anti-Nazi resistance (and was sent to a concentration camp in consequence), became a German politician (in the Free Democratic Party), was a European Commissioner, was appointed Director of the London School of Economics and later Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and was a Research Professor in Berlin. He was awarded national honours in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom; in Britain he became a life peer, taking the title Lord Dahrendorf of Clare Market. He died in Germany in 2009.

As a writer and thinker, Dahrendorf engaged strongly with different political traditions, focusing on social equality and integration in his key works. His analysis of this is contained in his seminal bookClass and Class Conflict in Industrial Society.

The political and intellectual tradition to which Dahrendorf belonged and which informed his thinking has not fared well since his death. I suspect he would have been horrified by Trump and Brexit, but also by the language and actions of those making up the opposition to both. We now have an angry society that looks everywhere for treachery and deceit, and has little time for cohesion and a common purpose.

It would be good if Ralf Dahrendorf, and others like him, were not forgotten.

The will of the people

January 9, 2018

Citizens of the United Kingdom have over the past year or two become accustomed to a particular assertion – that there is one thing beyond argument, because it is ‘the will of the people’; and that of course is Brexit. Let us not re-open all the EU debate for the moment, because that is not the intention of this blog post. Rather, I am interested in how our view of democracy is evolving.

Until 2016 the ‘will of the people’ would rarely have been a topic of discussion in Britain. Of course elections produce governments and all that, but I cannot recall any government ever brandishing its parliamentary majority and proclaiming that its manifesto promises were now ‘the will of the people’. Indeed doing so would be very questionable, since British governments are typically elected with the votes of a less-than-overwhelming proportion of the population. Elections are a process in which the people participate and by which parties or groups of politicians form governments, where they have managed to negotiate the system satisfactorily. It works, and has on the whole provided the UK with reasonable stability and security. But it would be hard to say that elections revealed the will of the people; governments so formed were just less incompatible with the will of the people than any other option.

A referendum is a different class of decision-making. In the UK in 2016 the people voted, and a majority decided on a particular course of action, with profound consequences of course. The people became the government on this issue, having been briefed, with outrageous contradictions in the briefings, by politicians and activists on both sides. And now even elected politicians must, if they are to avoid the unwelcome attentions of some tabloid newspapers, fall into line, no matter who elected them and what views their own voters might have on the issue.

So if the electorate can take this political decision, why not others; indeed why not every major decision? It is not a completely outlandish thought: Switzerland does something that comes pretty close. Many major decisions there are taken by the people in referendums: in 2016 there were nine such referendums, and in 2017 there were three. Of those twelve propositions put to the vote, five were adopted by the electorate, and the rest were rejected. So for example the people decided to smooth the way for third-generation immigrants, and to reconstruct a tunnel; and they rejected a revised corporate tax code.

Should the electorate be taking such direct decisions? On the whole, in our system of government we don’t think so. Then again, the UK does allow its citizens to make proposals for parliament, which parliament must debate if such proposals attract enough signatures. These petitions can be seen here. As you might expect, here you find numbers of people riding their favourite hobby-horses. Of course there’s a whole lot of stuff about Brexit (some of it quite zany). There are a few petitions about hunting. There are several which are, frankly, impenetrable. More to the point, none of these (the recent petitions about the state visit of Donald Trump being an exception to the rule) will ever make any difference, because they won’t attract the required number of signatures. Even those that are brought to parliament’s attention will not in the end lead to anything much.

I think European countries (except Switzerland) were right, in the first place, to establish representative democracies. We elect politicians, and we allow them to exercise judgement. Sometimes their judgement, by a significant majority, will not follow what we must assume is a majority popular view (capital punishment being a good example). But that is also good because while the majority must rule in a democracy, it must not always get its way; because if it did, it would be able to oppress minorities and endanger human rights, sometimes unwittingly. Let us not go that way. The will of the people should not always determine our frame of reference. Not least because popular opinion is fickle: opinion polls tell us that there is, apparently, a degree of buyer’s remorse regarding Brexit.

The mythology of treachery – and its dangerous results

December 29, 2017

In the years after the First World War in Germany a particular view of recent history began to take hold in certain circles – the Dolchstoßlegende (or ‘stab-in-the-back myth’). This suggested that Germany was never defeated in the war, and that the punitive Versailles Treaty was only possible because German troops had been betrayed by the country’s politicians and others. It was this myth that helped to fuel the growth of rightwing fanaticism and ultimately the Nazi party and its takeover of Germany.

It was of course not the last time that some movement or other identified traitors and saboteurs in its demonology, but this has never had good results. It is one of the reasons why the current fashion for denouncing traitors in the United Kingdom needs to be watched with some considerable care. The whole Brexit conversation is full of such language, on both sides, with some quite sinister undertones. Politicians have been accused of treachery, and often threatened personally, for holding views that others disagree with. Most recently the Conservative MP Heidi Allen received an anonymous card in the post in which the writer wished her a ‘long and slow demise’, and calling her a traitor (it must be assumed that this referred to her sceptical stance regarding Brexit). The threatened violence might be abhorrent to all reasonable people, but the general tone is the logical extension of campaigns by widely-read newspapers.

But this focus on alleged treachery is not confined to extreme supporters of Brexit, it has become a common feature of internal Labour Party disputes also. Recently the alternative leftwing news blog, Skwawkbox, decided to suggest that Labour MP Stella Creasy, by attending a concert (Shed Seven, if you need to know) in the company of a Conservative MP and others, was displaying an inappropriate ‘cosiness’ with the enemy. At one level this is playground-like childishness on the part of Skwawkbox, but it also maintains the toxic narrative of treachery and betrayal.

None of this is good. It is time to recover a degree of civility within public discourse and to accept that, mostly, people do and support what they believe is right. We can argue with their views and their judgement, but we should stop making it personal. And for heaven’s sake, everyone should stop constantly being angry about everyone and everything. Lighten up.

Reformed thinking

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thereby setting in train the events that led to what is now referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’. The accumulation over a short period of time of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the printing press and widespread debate on issues raised in these processes changed western civilisation fundamentally and permanently.

Luther, like many of the leaders of the Reformation and for that matter many of those who opposed it, was not necessarily an altogether pleasant man. His strongly anti-semitic views gave a toxic prompt to some rabble rousers, with his influence stretching into 20th century fascism. But nevertheless, his actions opened up a new chapter of intellectual engagement and strengthened the position of Europe’s leading universities, as well as their capacity to engage in critical analysis and research – although Luther also opined that universities could be ‘the great gates of hell’.

Theologically, politically and socially, the Reformation was complex, and if it led to intellectual empowerment for some it also prompted narrow-mindedness in others. But the anniversary is worth celebrating, because our freedom of thought and of academic debate was reinforced through the posting of the 95 Theses and what followed. We are, in some respects at ;east, products of the Reformation.