The first sentence can be found in the Eisenach program of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of 1869, and the second statement was part of the Christian Democratic campaign in 1982, running against the SPD-led federal government.
Today Martin Schulz claims that there is a deep rift dividing our society, and he would like for our country to be more just. I can only endorse it, when the designated party leader and top candidate of the Social Democrats takes up traditions, which – friendly speaking – were not always the focus of the SPD in recent years.
In case Martin Schulz feels committed to social justice and advocates peace, democracy and solidarity, he can count on the support of the Left. This is also the case, when he is promoting equal opportunities for careers and education, while taking into consideration the problems of Germany’s local communities.
Martin Schulz’s is still vague. How could wages and profits correlate appropriately? How could minimum wages and pensions develop to serve everyone in the country? What is the strategy for digitalization, crowding and cloud working? How can the welfare state be restored, the unemployed not degraded to solicitants and constantly threatened with new sanctions? When are we starting to redistribute wealth from top to bottom? And finally, what role is Germany going to play in the world? Should armament exports and overseas deployment continue? Will we continue to suppress Greece and sanction Russia? How can Germany and the EU prevent causes of flight? What is Germanys contribution to environment and climate?
The catalogue of needs is various, and could be even more detailed. And Schulz won’t be able to retain the ‘mystique of the new’ forever. Aside from the fact, that he is the longest-serving presidium member, Martin Schulz is now opposing a government, the SPD has been part of for the past 16 years. Hence, the Social Democrats are jointly responsible for the state of the Republic. Many of the issues he is raising now, could have already been voted on and passed in Parliament. For instance, ending unfounded fixed terms in labor law. Creating legal frameworks for people to marry whomever they love, as well as an immediate ban on small arms exports, or the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany. An actual reform of the inheritance tax could be a building block for a more just society.
Unfortunately these are all unutilized opportunities, given the current majorities in Parliament. But after the 2013 election, the SPD consciously decided against a possible center-left alliance. That is why I am interested in whether or not Schulz, after September 24, 2017, will exclude the continuation of a coalition between the Union and the SPD.
When Gerhard Schröder and Katrin Göring-Eckardt established the “Agenda 2010”, (a series of reforms planned and executed by the German government, a Social-Democrats/Greens coalition at that time, which aimed to reform the German welfare system and labour relations in the German Parliament in 2003), there was no opposition to the left of the SPD.
The CDU eventually adopted a neo-liberal program. Starting at that point in time, the conservatives talked ‘politics without alternatives’. The PDS, later THE LEFT, called the Hartz laws (a set of recommendations submitted by a commission on reforms to the German labour market in 2002), “poverty by law” and fought henceforth against precarious employment, low wages, pension reductions, study and practice fees, child poverty, exorbitant rents, homelessness and other social atrocities. To the annoyance of the SPD and most trade unions, THE LEFT demands a nationwide legal minimum wage. It took more than a decade till the Social Democrats adopted a minimum wage. The next step, in my opinion would be, to increase the minimum wage to 12 Euros in order to avoid old-age poverty.
After the elections in 2017, it is also about a change of personnel in the Federal Cabinet. With Martin Schulz, once again, somebody is knocking on the door of the chancellor’s office. Above all, however, a policy change is on the agenda. This appears possible and THE LEFT will not disappoint. For this the party needs many votes. I advocate a change in policy – without compromise. Martin Schulz to this day remains opaque on policy – and that in a rather charming manner. It’s only that charm and magic rarely get you into the chancellor’s office.Photo: © Stefan Müller / bundesregierung.de
In the 70s there was still significant manufacturing and heavy industry including shipbuilding. The coal and steel industry was fundamental to the communities of Wales, Scotland and the North of England. The cafés were pretty empty during working hours, because most of those employed were in offices, factories and other places of work. The majority of British children had never shared a classroom with a black or a brown face and everyone at the doctor’s surgery spoke English. The big AND… There was no internet and the public got their news and information primarily from national newspapers and TV radio news.
The selfish society and the myth of ‘austerity’
In brief, I believe a ‘Hard Rain’ has fallen and continues to fall heavily on the have-nots in society. The majority of the world’s wealthier nations have sadly adopted the selfish society so encouraged by Thatcher and Reagan as the norm. In the UK most manufacturing and heavy industry has been completely lost, along with all the jobs and in many cases the loss of whole communities’ ways of life and hopes for the future. I find it very sad when value of life is defined purely in financial terms and people of all ages and demographics are obsessed by terms such as ‘austerity’ and ‘deficit’. In my view these words are mythical terms used in an attempt to disguise the exploitation of poorer people and rationalise their bad treatment.
Freedom to be second-class European citizens
I have witnessed another pertinent example of loss of hope and a way of life in parts of Eastern Germany. Communities ‘freed’ from the oppression of a communist regime experienced brief exploitative investment, which has since been withdrawn. Forty years of their lives were devalued in a gold rush fever for the DM and they have ultimately been devalued both financially and as human beings with second-class citizenship.
To conclude this attempt to put the upcoming referendum into context, I would like to say that at the beginning of my musical career I was a very strong advocate of European Unity and cooperation. I could identify with most of Europe’s issues and challenges and believed GB should be fundamentally involved in making the EC work. This conviction however was based on a smaller manageable sized Europe made up of old nations with common values and similar strength economies. I have become disillusioned by the sprawling sarcophagus that the EU has become. It is so broken that I believe things can only get better and ideally The UK should be involved in it’s reinvention, but it will happen anyway.
One of the big concerns for British people is handing over their destiny to an unelected legislature in Brussels. They want more democracy – more sovereignty. But if we leave the EU the UK still has an unelected House of Lords and a parliament voted for by less than half the population! We are also run by civil servant bureaucrats, but at least there is some genuine political oversight. There are no black and white issues
The situation is so complicated. It’s not all good or all bad. Take immigration – After leaving the single market, it may well be a condition of a trade agreement with the EU that the UK have to allow the free movement of people. Without a seat at the EU table this will immediately be out of UK control. Then there’s the economy – It’s certainly riskier to leave than to stay but that’s not to say staying in is without economic risks, especially given the current state of the EC. Britain could end up being a more nimble economy unfettered by the EU or we could be left languishing on the sidelines licking our wounds after a bitter economic divorce! Divorce is always costly.
Economic risks for the UK in or out of the EC
Experts seem to say that leaving would be damaging in the short term, but that doesn’t mean it will happen, it’s just a measure of chance! Risk in financial terms can be a good thing as high-risk options can reap good rewards. So, as a cautious UK voter, if you’re not willing to take the risk that things might get worse, you should vote to stay in Europe. If you’re prepared to accept things might get worse before they get better then you should probably vote out. Risk is not a bad thing in the true sense, it is simply a measure of variance. The future isn’t certain if we stay in either. At present the Eurozone is mired with troubles and the risk associated with this.
Will the UK vote to maintain the status quo in a binary vote?
There’s more stability in the status quo and so the financial markets therefore react unfavourably to Brexit popularity. They are predicting not only a short-term sharp shock of negativity, but also the real possibility of a medium to long-term economic downturn. This really scares ‘growth obsessed’ politicians the world over. Longer-term equilibrium could take many years after an economic restructuring of this magnitude. People are still smarting from the crash, which took place less than a decade ago. A Brexit vote is an uncertain vote. But clearly nobody really knows what could happen. Leaving or staying both have their advantages and disadvantages which is why the black/white campaigners have no voter credibility and the voting public don’t trust them. It’s a binary vote but it’s not a binary argument.
Could it be the Euro is not about good economics, but a slave to the creation of a fantasy European State?
Arguably, the greatest achievement of the EU has been the creation of the Euro (Also its Achilles heal?) Over the last two years we’ve seen it to be an extremely hazardous undertaking. The Euro’s been in danger of collapsing, member states have been in danger of leaving and Europe as a whole has plunged into negative growth. Mass unemployment has been created in southern European countries resulting in migrants freely moving to Northern Europe where the jobs are. Is the European economy being run as a political project, not as an economy? The Euro is not about good economics but symbolically about creating a European state, arguably another project in progress. Consequences in short and possibly medium term are economically disastrous. So there are also enormous risks in being attached to this economy; that is voting to stay in the EU.
Is the UK referendum an anti-political protest?
Human nature is to avoid change. Leaving is a calculated risk. Europe has no apparent manifesto or concrete plan comparable to one that a political party would present to an electorate. British people don’t seem to like political (or any) experts; especially those giving only black & white opinions and not reasoned arguments. The public are more likely to listen and trust if there is more give and take in the discussions. In most referendums there is a move to the status quo. (With the exception of the last one in Scotland). This referendum is taking place in a mood of anti-establishment, anti-mainstream and almost anti-political protest. Will it bounce back to status quo? No one knows. (One economist said you have to be 65% sure of Brexit to actually vote out!) Those pollsters, who already failed miserably in predicting the results of the last British general election, have no precedents upon which to predict the outcome of the vote on June 23rd.
Artists and involvement in politics
Having discussed the Brexit issues as objectively as possible in the previous section of the piece, I will now switch into artist mode. I have often been asked why I don’t get actively involved in politics. The answer for me is quite a simple one. If you become part of the political process you are subject to the rules and restrictions that go with it. Also, party political systems inhibit uncensored political expression. I believe that as an artist I am in a stronger position to comment from outside the process and within the context of my art.
Integrity versus integration in the EC
Britain is a European country. I think Brexit is a manifestation of the need for the balance between integrity and integration common to all European countries. It could be said the European Community is in serious need of restructuring for all Europeans, irrespective of Britain’s role in or out of the equation or negotiations.
The principles of maintaining peace in Europe, removing obstacles to cooperation and trade between member states and providing a united economic front against the USA, Russia, China and the other emerging super economies of the 21st century are still valid. It seems to me that some European politicians’ dream of a centrally controlled federal Super State now sounds a lot like capitalist totalitarianism! The EC in its present form is not working and needs a total rethink for all concerned, irrespective of the UK’s involvement.
The UK referendum on June 23rd is looking less like a vote on Britain’s position in the world relative to its European neighbours and more like a vote on acceptable levels of xenophobia and a politicians’ leadership battle. Maybe I’m mistaken, but the same concerns are being asked right across Europe? The failing EU needs to be addressed. Aren’t a majority of Europeans concerned about being controlled by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels?
Are politicians themselves losing hope and courage?
Especially in the era of ‘Reality TV’ style politics and the PC society, most politicians seem to be scared to express their real opinions and stand up for ideologies and they are also reluctant to address unpopular but real issues. There is a lack of vision, long-term planning and courage. The apathy often expressed by voters based on the idea that voting makes no difference, that all political parties are the same and that all politicians are in it for themselves implies a hopelessness which seems to have spread to political leaders! This is not surprising perhaps against the backdrop of a malfunctioning but all encompassing EC, a decimated Middle East, a gangster-controlled Russia and impending Trump in the USA. The rise of the right in politics throughout the world has been precipitated by contemporary PC politicians’ refusal to accept racism as a reality that needs dealing with, especially when heartless and elitist economic policy leads to a disenfranchised white working class. The USA’s failure to confront racism has paved the way to the possibility of a Trump presidency.
Merkel’s Legacy – One of the most naïve gaffs of modern politics, or the noble action of a humanitarian political leader?
Did Merkel have an attack of ‘the Kohls’? Reunification in Germany seemed to be ruled by a rush of blood to the head with no forethought or planning, possibly with personal glory in mind. From an outsider’s (Auslander’s!) point of view Merkel’s skill has always been to get a sense of the way the wind is blowing and go with it. Her invitation to refugees was completely out of character and has inadvertently punctured a hole in the EC super tanker that could prove as ‘Titanically’ significant as the hole cut in a Hungarian fence which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the unravelling of communist Europe!
In my opinion in the short term, with respect to Europe’s great refugee challenge, the only answer is tighter border controls and much more money spent on interviewing all the migrants, but this is a real case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Recent world leaders with no military understanding
It’s impossible to consider Europe’s enormous refugee challenge without examining the causes in the Middle East. Since the generation of politicians who experienced the true consequences of military action in war has inevitably retired from power, the world has seen a number of ludicrous military campaigns instigated by world leaders devoid of any military experience or competence. I come from a military family. Soldiers are very aware of the consequence in human casualties of any operation they undertake. The military require politicians to have an intelligent long-term strategy. The last 15 to 25 years have been a very sad indictment of these diminishing statesmanlike skills. Lack of military expertise has led to mammoth mistakes. My personal view is that the dishonest warfare instigated by Blair and Bush and Putin could well subject them to accusations of actual war crimes. The Middle East has been decimated by supposed removal of despots and waging war on terror. Pressure to act quickly and punitively to avenge terror at home or abroad without justification or consideration of long-term consequence and sufficient international concensus has shown up the woeful inadequacy of much of the world leadership.
A dream Middle East solution – A truly international liberation force
In an ideal world, re-building the Middle East should be the responsibility of the whole international community. There could be a deployment of an authentically international force rather than America plus their Western allies to the Middle East to confront the IS situation on the ground and create safe states for the long suffering indigenous populations.
I imagine it would require at least 300,000 ‘boots on the ground’ supported by air power but with no indiscriminate bombing. It would ideally be a large military presence comprising troops from The USA, China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, France, India, Japan – all nations in fact. What was the UN originally designed for?! Once stability has been re-established half the troops would remain as a peace-keeping military police force to supervise the rebuilding of the countries’ infrastructures financed by an enormous international fund. This would probably be a commitment of at least 15 years!
Unfortunately it’s not an ideal world and the recent foreign policy of the major powers has been so misguided that the fundamentalist genie is unlikely to return to the bottle. It should also be noted that no major power has ever defeated a guerilla army and as Nietzsche believed, when you fight monsters, you are in danger of becoming a monster yourself!
What will happen if the UK leaves the EC?
I originally believed a British exit from the EC would result in negative economic consequences for the Eurozone and that the British economy would be dragged down into the vortex. Having done extensive research I now realise not even the most eminent economists can make an accurate prediction of the economic consequences of a UK exit. The situation is very complex and it would have helped their credibility if the campaigners could have explained both the advantages and disadvantages of their viewpoint rather than present such a binary argument. Also the two major issues of economics and freedom of movement are not mutually exclusive.
A 2-Tier Euro and a fairly weighed European Parliament
For many years however I have advocated a flexible 2-tier Euro, which would enable the smaller nation economies to effectively devalue currency when necessary to avoid economic and national humiliation. This still seems like a practical idea.I also believe that representation in the European Parliament should be proportional to the population of the country and its contribution to the EC budget.
The UK referendum is a ludicrous exercise. Not even the top political analysts can accurately predict the effect of Britain leaving the EU. The divided internal politics of Cameron’s Tories have led to this ‘trial by tabloid’. The British electorate are being frightened into voting for personalities and to express their prejudices. It should be remembered this is a referendum not an election. The rules of Reality TV and the culture of ‘trial by internet’ are dictating the tone of debate. This vote is a very big deal with major implications for the UK, the EC and beyond. Apparently the majority of young Britons think it’s cool not to vote, such is the loss of interest in the political process. Blame my generation for having it so good Harold Macmillan style and taking it for granted for so long!Photo: © Fotolia / Andery Burmakin
Three decades after Reiser’s hit, a threatening reincarnation of Ronald Reagan governs the White House, refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and the German military is once again going to war. At least they spared us a king, we could not have found one like Rio anyway. The first man in the state – so far they have always been men – has only limited power. However, the head of state should have an impact.
There is vehement, as well as qualified opposition to the pros and cons of the office. Both sides have strong arguments. We don’t need a pseudo-monarch, or any other top symbolic figure. Our democratically founded country can do without a state-doorman, a leading notary, a main referee or chief travel agent. We have constitutional bodies which can adopt these duties and take them on at a low cost. One can praise or criticize them, without instantly drawing fury for supposedly damaging a noble office or their holder.
As a politician in office, however, I only know too well how strongly current problems and interests determine our daily activities. There are times we hardly have a clear mind for activities beyond the daily routine. And who is taking care of morality and values? Who ponders thoroughly about non-violence and justice, the environment and climate, food and water, equality and emancipation?
Of course this is not a plea for no-conscience-politics. But it can be helpful if one of high degree is looking back, looking forward, connecting past and future, initiating impact, and remains a calm anchor. Such impulses have served our country well.
I am of course thinking of President Richard von Weizsäcker’s memorable speech on May 8th of 1985, referring to that historical date of May 8th of 1945, as a “day of liberation” for the first time in German history. President Roman Herzog, the first German president travelling to Auschwitz, and President Johannes Rau, who asked for forgiveness in the Knesset for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. I have sincere respect for the courageous President Christian Wulff, stating that Islam belongs to Germany, as well as President Joachim Gauck, who spoke boldly about the genocide of the Armenians. When Gustav Heinemann was asked if he loved this state, he replied: “I don’t love states, I love my wife.” Humanity first!
Introducing the presidential candidate of the grand coalition, was one of Social Democrat’s Sigmar Gabriel’s last coups. It was not the finest hour of democracy, nor a contribution to the dignity of the high office. In my opinion, a future direct ballot of the Federal President should be considered. This could indeed be a national debate on the future viability of our society. In a country where a miserable car toll turns into a state project, whose government is dealing with despots, right-wing preachers of hate become a considerable alternative for voters, such a debate is more than necessary.
I am not expecting a great surprise at the Federal Assembly on February 12th. I respect Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Germany’s chief diplomat has often acted cautiously and redeeming, has warned against saber rattling and confronted Trump. But he is also a founding father of the unfortunate Agenda 2010 and has not opposed the war deployments of the German army. Steinmeier represents a social-democracy that has given up its best traditions. I will not give him my vote and I am glad that there is a choice.
DIE LINKE (The Left) proposes the renowned scientist Christoph Butterwegge. Among other things, he has dealt with right-wing extremism and racism, published on globalization, demography and the social state and, above all, is a well-known researcher on the subject of poverty. Butterwegge is skeptical about the thesis of a supposed economic recovery for all, and offers his concept of the “paternoster effect”: “Some are going up, and the others are going down, and that at the same time, because poor and rich are two sides of the same coin. Low wages mean high profits. So you can not fight poverty by promoting wealth, but you have to fight poverty by challenging wealth”. Professor Butterwegge has always interfered and stood up for his believes.
His eight year old daughter asked him, if she is going to live as a princess in Bellevue castle. He denied that. Because Germany won’t have a king and that is ok. We need impulses.Photo: © gemeinfrei
As a Brazilian myself, I grew up hearing that word through most of my life, citing either Brazil or virtually any country in South America. But what is populism, can we learn from the past and, more boldly, can we make a prediction of the future?
A quick search online and multiple news sources will identify populism in most of Western European countries: the French Front National in France; the 5Star Movement in Italy; the Freedom Party in Austria; Podemos in Spain; PVV in the Netherlands; True Finns in Finland; the People’s Party in Denmark; the Swedish Democrats in Sweden; the FpR in Norway; and, of course, Britain’s UKIP and Germany’s AfD. Other European countries were also identified with a rise in populist political parties. Outside of Europe the most notable populists are Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Lee Jae-Myung in South Korea and Donald Trump in the USA. Even Hillary Clinton was named a soft populist recently, but it is hard to explain populism without being too broad.
Populism can be either conservative or liberal. In general, left populists will combine it with some form of socialism, while right populists do it with nationalism. The first is more prominent in Southern Europe while the latter in Northern.
It appears nowadays that any form of popular and charismatic leader is called a populist, regardless of its policies. “Populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people”, writes Cas Mudde, a political scientist specialized in the subject and in political extremism in Europe. In his book ‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’, Mudde explains the rise of populism in Europe from both left and right-wing parties. He states that economic crises “led to an outpouring of new anti-EU sentiment among the moderate left, while the refugee crisis has had a similar effect among the moderate right.”
Trump promised to tackle the establishment and ‘drain the swamp’ in the White House, stating a clear distinction between him and his followers against the elite. Trump also focused on putting “America First” and most populists in Europe do the same, claiming the European Union failed its countries (left-wing) and that migration rules should be stricter and decided on a national level (right-wing).
It is tricky to write about populism in South America especially because the word is not used often. Of course there were/are populists in government position, but each country is unique even if the rhetoric by those in power is somewhat similar. The major difference between populism in these countries and the rise of populism in Europe nowadays is that all mentioned above were left-wing populism, while European countries are mainly shifting to right-wing populism with a few exceptions such as Greece and Spain.
For example, in Venezuela there was Chavism, from Hugo Chaves; in Argentina it was Kirchnerism from Néstor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Kirchner; in Brazil it was Lulism from president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. In the XX. century there was also populism in Argentina with Juan Perón, in Chile with Carlos Ibanês del Campo and in Brazil with Getúlio Vargas, to name a few.
Populism in South America was responsible for some considerable improvement in the life of everyday citizens, such as the reform of labour laws, better income for the lower class and lesser people living in extreme poverty. Lula, in Brazil, managed to be the first left-wing president of the country in recent history. With social programs that would benefit the poorest with food, houses and education, under his leadership the country got out of poverty for the first time. Although being under investigation for the Petrobras state oil company scandal, polls put Lula as the next president of Brazil in 2018 elections, which probably indicates another wave of left-wing populism is about to happen in Brazil.
The problem with populism is its inflexibility and narrow minded vision. Either left or right-wing populism, it always ignores one or multiple groups, undermining and neglecting opponents’ views. In Brazil, Lula’s socialism gave voice and power to the poor in the north while neglecting the rich in the south. While his successor Dilma tried to follow a similar path, she encountered a strong resistance from the elite and was ousted last year.
Nevertheless populism has an important role historically and it often shifts the Overton Window – a range of ideas the public will accept and normalise. Brexit was considered unthinkable before. Trump was mocked for attempting to be president. After these two events became a reality it changed the Overton Window and a populist Europe is now a plausible reality.
In many countries right-wing parties have taken the wheels of government. France and the Netherlands have elections this year and in both countries the front runners are simulating the same anger rhetoric against immigration. Also, Britain’s UKIP and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland are enjoying record popularity.
On December 4th Austrians voted against its populist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and gave a breath of fresh air to E.U. backers. Despite all its flaws, the European Union has accomplished its main goal: to prevent a war between members of the union. If anything, the rise of right-wing populism in Europe will be important to shift the Overton Window once more, this time focusing on a general and practical reform of the E.U.
What it cannot be predicted is how Europe is going to be if more right-wing populist parties win important elections, for example in France, the Netherlands and Germany. In different countries in South America, the populism in the 20th century was replaced by a military dictatorship, but those were left-wing populism. If right-wing populists in Europe win and try to dictate their agenda neglecting the other side, a violent outcome can be expected and the ‘political warfare’ among citizens will be the new ‘class warfare’ Marx predicted more than a century ago.
In 2016 the most anticipated election was in USA, this year all eyes will turn to Germany as the strongest beacon of hope for the E.U.Photo: © LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images
We owe Froebel the kindergarten. While we can possibly refrain from Froebels pathos, we can not ignore the encompassing concern of society for our offspring. A fifth of children and youth in Germany, below the age of 18, are currently at risk of impoverishment. In different German states, such as Bavaria or Baden-Wurttemberg the rate is below 12 %, in federal City States, East Germany and in parts of North Rhine-Westphalia above 25 %. Data of the European Office for Statistics show a steady increase.
In the year of 2006 one and a half million children in Germany below the age of 16 were affected by impoverishment. Their number rose to approximately 1,7 million within nine years. Child poverty exists particularly often within the single-mother community, within families that have many children and non-native German families. According to the German government about 29.000 children and youth are currently living without accommodation.
The consequences of child poverty are devastating and their impact can last a lifetime. Poverty often creates conflicts, stress and anxiety. Those factors can influence the child’s health, as well as his/her personal development. Children from impoverished families have less of a chance for a good education or a well-paid job. Poverty is embarrassing at any age. Not only for the individuals affected, even more so for a society that tolerates child poverty. We cannot neglect the guiding principle that our children should have a better future!
Indeed, the current administration does not seem to share the strong apprehension I feel for our children in need. According to chancellor Angela Merkel, “Germans never had it as good as today.” The current coalition agreement, a volume of 134 pages, does not mention the term “child poverty”, once. In my opinion, political will is lacking, right there. The “education and participation package” is a bureaucratic monster, and often appears exclusive. Andrea Nahles, the German Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, finds child poverty to be a “depressing phenomenon”, but denies higher social security benefits simultaneously. Social policy experts are not enthused by the recent revaluation of social security standard rates, calling them ineffective.
The “National Poverty Conference”, the German Child Protection Agency and other welfare organizations demand, “No more excuses! We need to fight child poverty.” These organizations expect to have an action plan implemented that mentions child poverty in the respective political platforms of the parties, in the coalition agreement, and in potential legislation, including a deadline for the eradication of child poverty on a national level. This action plan needs to be long-term, multi-dimensional, and financially viable. Short-term action is needed pretty much everywhere right now: child benefits should quickly rise to 328 Euros, that would match the tax relief, top earners already gain from child allowance. Urgently needed are basic security benefits for our children. Maintenance advance needs to be raised and prolonged. In addition to more qualified personnel in our state agencies. Those are investments into the future!
With my party, DIE LINKE, we are planning on establishing a five-year-plan to end child poverty in Germany. We find this to be an appropriate and manageable time frame for a worthwhile and absolutely vital goal. I initiated a network against child poverty within the faction, a coalition for the cause build with charitable organizations, scientists, practitioners, and public personas from arts and entertainment.
Politics can refrain from pathos, but simply do not work without the practice of empathy.Photo: © Fotolia / chris74
In her novel “Unterleuten”, the German author Julie Zeh is describing a fictitious village in the East German state of Brandenburg, but it might as well be located in my home state Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in Alsace or in the US-American rust-belt. Nowadays, those winning political elections in these areas are populist representatives, such as AfD, Front National or Donald Trump. When that happens, the establishment is horrified. That is also true for DIE LINKE, the German party THE LEFT, by many already considered as part of the establishment, although I consider that to be untrue. Now the question occurs, what follows the shock? What happens in the aftermath?
It appears that those governing Germany prefer to ride it out, rather than bringing about real change. “More of the same,” seems to be their motto. They encourage the trade agreement CETA now more than ever and don’t prevent the export of arms into war zones. German officials attack Russian leader Vladimir Putin, while making overtures to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They also claim employment miracles, based on a culture of job insecurity that has been cultivated in Germany over recent decades. More money has been spent on arms, while citizens on social welfare experience a drastic care cut. Accompanied by the imminent danger of old-age poverty and an increasing rate of child poverty.
Chancellor Angela Merkel reminds us of values and tends to moralize, meanwhile the German Federal Intelligence Service and our once prestigious car company Volkswagen stand more and more for lies and deception. While the refugee crisis is still going on, human rights became negotiable. One governing party “rents out Sozis,” another one is issuing unconstitutional ultimatums.
There exists obscene wealth in the Federal Republic of Germany. Meanwhile, the most important issues that need to be addressed urgently, to turn our nation into a sustainable one, are being ignored: the redistribution of wealth for the benefit of social justice in our society. A grand tax reform and a real pension reform, as well as the revision of our welfare system, still remain on the agenda. The German government loses itself in small reforms, and abandons the responsibility to adjust life standards in East and West Germany on equal terms.
DIE LINKE developed numerous concepts but appears to have a major problem: while our analyses are widely respected, very few believe in our abilities to solve these issues. Why? Perhaps we have missed out on expressing our willingness to lead, as of yet. Sometimes it is easier to draw stop lines than plans of action. Long debates over the eventuality of leading this country can discourage potential voters. Often we fail to communicate the “utility value”, we as a party ought to provide for our voters.
Growing fears are also impacting the middle class. The fears of losing employment and as a result not being able to pay the rent, sudden illness and the resulting dependency on family members. These citizens are not served well with complex attempts to explain the world. DIE LINKE shouldn’t only interpret, but bring about change. A socialist party must attempt to impact the relations of capital and labor.
Social justice, placidity and sustainability have to be in the center of left-wing politics today. In government, as well as in the opposition, the responsibility remains the same. Sometimes, in order to govern, preconditions need to be right, the mood has to be right. Often parliamentary majorities are not sufficient for a change. The current parliament shows that. The Social Democratic Party, SPD, is lowering the bar a bit, but is missing the courage to oppose the right-wing trend in German society by clearly defining left-wing political perspectives.
Social Democrats, The Green Party and DIE LINKE can create good conditions for a Mid-Left-Alliance. But we still have a lot of work to do to realize that plan. We recently started the process by meeting with our potential coalition partners for an exchange of ideas and sentiments. In 2017 DIE LINKE will compete as an independent, political force. We will be showing a clear profile and have answers ready for the most pressing matters of our time.Photo: © Spencer Platt / Gettyimages
Companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact alongside a financial return: the landscape is growing with new funds emerging. Impact investor networks such as The ImPact and Toniic attracting new members and of course new social entrepreneurs raising investment with their groundbreaking ideas. In the last couple of years I have led three parallel lives. As an activist, trying to increase transparency in the Greek parliament. As a philanthropist, funding organizations in the area of political activism, social entrepreneurship and refugee aid. And finally, as an impact investor through our family office in Munich.
Impact investing is a fascinating field and a great way to support commercial activities that tackle the social and environmental challenges of our time. Yet, my experience with political activism and philanthropy taught me that impact investing alone cannot achieve the breakthrough change we need. The big issues facing humanity, most importantly climate change and the growing divide between rich and poor, cannot be solved by impact investing alone. These issues call for cultural change regarding our values, frames and belief systems as well as changes to our political, economic and social institutions.
For many social entrepreneurs the highest achievement actually is achieving systems and policy change. For example, social entrepreneurs might advocate for closing the gaps in the welfare system that made their own emergence necessary. Ashoka, one of the leading organizations supporting social entrepreneurs worldwide, also supports the idea that actual service provision is only one side of the social impact coin. Their four level impact model lists influencing systems and frameworks as the other – often neglected – side. I am therefore convinced that impact investing strategies need to be coupled with efforts at achieving change at the level of root causes and systems. Policy change is an important aspect of this. It can have the same, if not greater impact than impact investing.
Last year for example, I made a donation to a UK NGO called Share Action to support one of their campaigns for pension fund reform in the UK and Europe. As members of a broad alliance of European NGOs, Share Action lobbied the European Parliament to allow pension funds to become more responsible investors. The suggested changes in the EU legislation include an adaptation of the Shareholder Rights Directive which would give investors more power to hold companies to account with respect to their environmental performance and the use of pension fund assets. The European Council and the European Commission will hopefully reach a final agreement on this matter by the end of this year, which could have a tremendous impact.
European pension funds with combined assets of around three trillion Euro would then have to actively consider environmental, social and governance factors in their investment decisions. The project was supported chiefly by the Mava Foundation Pour La Nature and KR Foundations with an overall budget of just over 208.000 Euro. Although my own donation was below 15.000 Euro the effect it could contribute to is arguably massive, helping shift billions of Euros into more sustainable investing and changing the behavior of an entire sector!
Another great example for the effects of advocacy funding are a donation of 27 Million US-Dollars that Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation created by Duty Free Shoppers Group co-founder Chuck Feeney, made to the Health Care for America Now coalition in 2007. The coalition eventually succeeded in lobbying congress to pass the Affordable Care Act also known as “Obamacare” that provided millions of people access to critical health services. According to the Huffington Post and other media, the legislation would most likely not have passed without this critical support by Atlantic Philanthropies.
Advocacy impact strategies are surely accompanied by high levels of risk. Outcomes are by no means guaranteed and your donation will be gone indefinitely irrespective of whether a change was achieved on the actual issue. However, if you are a risk-taker and care about achieving the maximum impact with your money, investing into political advocacy is very much worth looking into. Moreover, even failed campaigns can have their upside if alliances were built, knowledge was shared and organizational capacity was increased. These effects will outlast an individual campaign effort and can fuel future advocacy. In the case of the Share Action donation, the result was the formation of ERIN (European Responsible Investment Network), which brings together a wide-range of civil society organizations interested in improving public accountability and investment practices of Europe’s investment sector.
Another angle on advocacy funding is how ESG (ecological, social and governance) issues can have a financial impact for investors given a certain policy framework. For example, in a policy framework where the ‘polluter pays’ for damaging the environment, sustainable companies represent better investment choices. Creating such a framework, the state (and entities like the EU) could help create markets for responsible and sustainable products. Public policies can mobilize more resources than anyone else; they can create an environment where new solutions are allowed to scale; they can discipline offenders and encourage early adopters in ways that the market alone cannot do. One example in this context is how the European Investment Fund is helping to build the social investing space in Europe by investing more than 250 million Euro into private equity impact investing funds through its Social Impact Accelerator program. These funds allow social businesses around Europe to become investment-ready for larger follow-up investments.
The bottom line is that Impact Investment and policy work really should support and complement each other. Undoubtedly, there is no one solution to solving the world’s problems, as the world’s struggles are interconnected from democracy to climate change, from rising inequality to consumer protection. In the end achieving policy change and impact investing are part of the same coin, different strategies for achieving the same goal that is a peaceful and prosperous society.Photo: © Human Rights Watch
Tell us: what is Helena?
Helena is an organization that convenes world leaders from different generations and fields, and implements some of the resulting ideas in an effort to create positive change in the world. Each year, Helena adds a class of 30 members. Half of these members are under 25 years old, half are over, and each is a leader from a separate field. The result is a close-knit community of leaders that might not have otherwise met. Their discussions reflect this, and produce a mixture of ideas that rarely converge. We’ve been fortunate enough to fill Helena with some amazing people: Fortune 500 executives, actors, technologists, explorers, geopoliticians, a Nobel Laureate, and more.
We don’t host conferences or public speeches. Instead, the members meet frequently, privately, and in small combinations. We work extremely hard to be not only a talking shop between our members, but to truly act on some of the ideas that are incubated inside the group. We are currently pursuing two significant projects.
Our first project is in partnership with KTK-BELT. We are helping to build “The Vertical University,” a carbon neutral, 160 mile and 27.000 vertical foot university in Eastern Nepal that will teach up to 6.000 students. An important feature of the University is connectivity: through “super-towers” set up across the campus, we plan to deliver internet to the region for the first time. Our second project is “The Helena Prize,” a search for the individual 30 years of age or younger with the most promising technology to reduce greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
How did the idea for Helena come about?
We wanted to create a group that equally featured leaders from different generations, we wanted to create a group that combined leaders with expertise in different areas, and we wanted to create a group that didn’t force members to discuss one topic over another.
All of these ideas came from daily life, but I think the most important is the inclusion of the youth in global decision making. Being 21, I’ve simply grown up in a world where the scales of influence are tilting younger and younger, and including the leaders who are pioneering policy, technology, activism, and science at the table seemed obvious.
The digital age has allowed young people to gain unprecedented influence in our society, and in many fields. You are beginning to see 20-year-old leaders at the forefront of major global trends. The digital age has reduced the barriers of age to a leader’s ability to amass a following and alter behavior at a large scale; we are seeing 19 and 20 year old actors and entertainers deliver ideas to tens of millions of people with one keystroke. In science, you have people like Divya Nag playing a significant role in the development of pluripotent stem cell research, and women like Yeonmi Park and Alaa Murabit conducting international activism and influencing policy.
Usually networks are for, let’s say, the more matured, older generation. Helena on the contrary aims for the younger generation. What makes you believe, people under 25 are particularly good at coming up with solutions?
I think that because half of Helena’s members are under the age of 25, there is an immediate reaction that we are prioritizing younger leaders over older leaders. That’s not really the case.
Helena’s structure is simply a statement that better ideas and better solutions can result from the inclusion of multiple generations, since both the under-25 and over 25 generations hold significant influence in the world. It would be illogical not to include young leaders in the conversation, both because the under-25 demographic takes up nearly half the world population, and because leaders under 25 have independently established themselves.
With that said, I do think there are grounds to argue that younger leaders are able to contribute different types of solutions than their older counterparts, simply due to the environment they grew up in. While I think that terms like “digital natives” are becoming a bit overused, there is truth to the concept they describe: that young people are better positioned to leverage the digital age, because they were introduced to it as children. A great example is Timothy Hwang, who has applied artificial intelligence and natural language processing to government legislation with FiscalNote. 24 year olds don’t typically have an easy time forging influence in the public sector, but Tim has done that using technologies native to the younger generation.
European societies may not understand your approach as they are aging communities. Many of the current conflicts, such as the refugee crisis or Brexit, are by some interpreted as symptoms for this. Can Helena save us from the stubbornness of the old?
I think that all generations show stubbornness, especially toward each other. One of the simplest fixes is simply to create dialogue between young and old where the playing field is completely level. If that dialogue is not weighted to favor one generation over another, we [Helena] think that it can yield positive results.
At many institutions, however, there is an encouragement of one-sided mentorship – that unity comes from the older generation teaching the younger generation. But this in some ways can create more of a rift. Helena’s argument is that mentorship and the exchange of ideas should be mutual, since each generation has a contributions to make, because of their different perspectives and experiences.
But you do bring up Brexit, which is an important point to cover. Regardless of how you fall politically, there was a failure on the part of young people to educate themselves on the surrounding circumstances, and turn out to vote. In contrast, 90% of the 65 and over demographic voted in the referendum. The youth’s attitude towards the referendum vote was the kind of harmful stubbornness and inaction that I hope an organization like Helena could play even a small part in correcting. In this case it was the young, not the old, that failed to adequately have their say in an pivotal global event, and severely cost them.
Helena is an ancient deity, said to be the most beautiful amongst her peers. If you attracting influencers of today for tomorrow how do you work on diversity issues? How do you make sure to have the best female and male minds around?
I’ll be the first to tell you that we do not have the levels of diversity that we should, but we are proud of the first Helena class that we have put together. In drafting our current membership, we went for the best leaders we could find, and of course a significant portion of them happen to be women. I think it’s obvious why: women make up half of the globe, and are leaders in every vertical.
In order to incubate and implement the best ideas, you can’t just have a bunch of straight white guys sitting around the table. That just isn’t representative of the global population and society as a whole. The inclusion of different identities in a community means you are able to tap into the different experiences your members have as human beings, and that translates to improved ideas. So we see do see diversity as a central component of our group.
What are the topics that you want to tackle with the Helena network?
Even though we don’t limit the group to any topic, there are certain issues we have recently become involved in.
The intersection of education, environmentalism, and the Internet was a topic that the members have grappled with quite a lot, and that led to one of the biggest projects Helena is currently undertaking. Alongside an incredible organization called KTK-BELT, we are helping to build “The Vertical University,” which is a carbon-neutral, nearly 6,000 student University in Eastern Nepal. We are hoping that the project can be a case study in sustainable education, where we are able to provide the building blocks for a model that doesn’t exploit the local population and allows them to educate each other autonomously, while protecting their natural ecology and preventing deforestation.
Helena has also hosted of a multitude of discussions regarding the future of governance as it pertains to the rose of global decentralization. Governments have derived power from controlling physical assets for thousands of years (cars, houses, financial systems, communication systems, physical data), but these assets are now becoming decentralized, privatized and non-physical (Uber, Airbnb, Bitcoin, email, cloud computing).
How much you want to engage with the public? Similar endeavors like Helena often face criticism to be elitist adventures that work to say the least not in favor of those who would need it most.
I think it’s a fair point. Creating a group the size of ours (30 members in each class, rather than thousands) can invite the criticism of elitism. And creating an environment of privacy in our meetings, where our group’s discussions are not publically broadcast or heavily reported on the media, can invite criticism as well.
We’ve chosen to do both of these things for very different reasons, however.
There are two types of conversations that can happen during meetings, conferences, and summits. The first, usually delivered in the form of speeches, are conversations where individuals deliver an idea to the public in an effort to disseminate ideas, promote an interest, or recapitulate a story. There are many effective organizations that specialize in these types of conversations, and we are certainly fans of them.
Yet, in these conversations there is rarely rebuttal or engaged debate. And further, speakers are usually discouraged to be vulnerable, discuss projects they are currently working on, or flesh out ideas that they are unsure of. We want to focus on those types of conversations, because we believe they are the most raw, and the conversations that can lead to significant action and change. When an idea does result from one of Helena’s meetings, it often becomes a public project, such as The Helena Prize. But we don’t see a justification in inviting heavy scrutiny in the ideation phase. We want to encourage members to subject themselves to opposing views, to disagree with one another, and to build relationships with one another, without a third party being involved.
We have 30 members a year for a simple reason: we want the members to actually collaborate. To us there is little use in a network with thousands of participants, if the goal of the network is to build consistent relationships between all of its members.
When you talk about your belief in improving the world, claiming that all our problems are solvable, one may be reminded of Singularity, a technology-friendly, slightly utopian philosophical view, developed in Silicon Valley. Is this the school, the theory you subscribe to or how would you describe the school of thought Helena wants to develop and stand for?
I don’t know if all of our problems are solvable, or if Helena will be able to fundamentally solve global issues. But I do think that assembling leaders that could collectively affect change is a worthwhile pursuit.
In creating Helena, we didn’t subscribe to any philosophy or world-view. Instead, we began on the other end, thinking mechanically about how an organization should function in order to yield results. Our philosophy is that the creation and implementation of ideas can happen best in an environment that includes leaders from multiple viewpoints. That is quite complex as is, but there is also a larger point here. It may very well be that there is no school of thought that can be universally applied to global issues. It may be that there is a school of thought that can, but it hasn’t been created yet. If we were to “play God,” or promote a singular philosophy that distracts from the creative process of our members, it would be at odds with our core mission.
It’s not to say that we aren’t personally inspired by the work of technology entrepreneurs and the Silicon Valley community. Singularity University, and the larger philosophy that Peter and Ray have contributed to, is a brilliant one. The mindset that exists there has been one of the chief drivers for innovation in the 21st century. Helena has members that represent that community, but it has members from a host of other fields as well.
It’s been fascinating to see how they intersect. The practicality and procedural philosophies from the political and geopolitical segments of our group that have been heavily challenged by the “best-idea-wins” philosophy of the entrepreneurial members of Helena. But both sides have contributed ideas to each other that are rarely taken into account.
Is there a business model associated with your work or is it a purely philanthropic, non-profit?
Helena Group is a non-profit foundation, and we don’t monetize anything about our networking group. We, I think, go very far out of our way to do this, because we want to create an environment that is as pure as possible, where our members have as few barriers to entry as possible. We charge no initiation fees, we charge no membership dues, and we only partner with outside organizations that directly work with Helena on its projects and ideas.
There is an important point to make here, however. The private sector, and increasingly the for-profit private sector, is demonstrating a powerful ability to create positive change in the world. Impact investing across financial disciplines, B-Corporations, and other for-profit vehicles have done good for the world, and we recognize their importance. However, Helena’s core engine, which is simply an intimate networking group of leaders, doesn’t need a huge amount of capital to operate.
How you deal with criticism that aims at you personally, saying you were too young to succeed with such an ambitious idea?
It’s not something I really care about. Plenty of people younger than I have done far more ambitious things – we’re lucky enough to have several of them in Helena.
Where do you want to develop Helena to? Who are your competitors and what would you in five years time call a success with this thriving endeavor of you and your team?
I think that’s a great question, and a hard one to answer. When we continue to build classes of 30 members over a long period of time, the group is going to scale to quite a large level. Preserving the group’s agility and culture over time is the first priority, because that is the engine that leads to the creation of ideas, and the implementation of our ideas into the world. We’ll be very focused on maintaining an environment where third parties collaborate with us, but do not unduly influence our decision-making.
The ability to in five years to ten years, develop a solution through Helena that a significant portion of our members naturally put their weight behind: is certainly a dream of ours. How that would occur, by definition, is not something we can predict. But it is certainly something to work towards.Photo: © A. Görlach
The meaning of beauty has fallen from a state of grace. No longer is it connected to goodness or truth, to the mind and the spirit. Instead, in today’s popular culture, beauty is overwhelmingly associated with the body. Corporeal beauty has become an emblem of a particular global value system, one that perpetuates an economy of desire focused on appearances, money, and fame, sought by most, but acquired by few. The quality of Beauty has been reduced to the shallow, the ephemeral, the transient. But it was not always that way.
During the Enlightenment, the concepts of Bildung, self-cultivation, and die Schöne Seele, the Beautiful Soul, blossomed in German philosophy. Bildung as a concept and a practice first emerged in 16th century theology, but was most rigorously developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Die Schöne Seele emerged from Bildung in the 18th century. Both concepts were inspired by Greek aesthetic philosophy, especially Platonic ideas of beauty and goodness and by the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus’s ideas on kalokagathia, a hybrid word synthesizing the quality of kalos (beautiful) with that of agathos (noble, good).
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Bildung was defined as education, or, more precisely, the rigorous cultivation of one’s intellect and self. Education in this sense has a rich, holistic meaning: a poetic process of intellectual, spiritual, and cultural development that conjoins advancement of one’s own faculties with the objective of contributing to the commonweal. Bildung was ultimately an aesthetic ideal focused on developing human capacities, knowledge and culture. Similarly, the concept of die Schöne Seele, entailed a rigorous pursuit of personal cultivation to create a convergence of the individual aesthetic impulse with a collective, ethical ideal. The Beautiful Soul was a virtuous soul, one that possessed a sense of justice, pursued wisdom, and practiced benevolence through an aestheticized proclivity for the Good. Together they may be defined as the sensory-aesthetic cultivation of one’s intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties for the purpose of self-realization, cultural refinement and collective human flourishing.
Many of the most prominent intellectuals, including Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller, Christoph Martin Wieland, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, were deeply committed to advancing the concepts and practices of Bildung and die Schöne Seele. They devoted a substantial part of their intellectual careers to the definition and development of these concepts through philosophical tracts, essays, letters, literary works, and theatre. Their ideas were disseminated and proliferated throughout Europe, engaging overlapping circles of intellectuals, artists, educators, politicians, and a critically debating public for over two centuries.
At the core of Bildung and die Schöne Seele was the idea that the individual possessed an innate cognitive potential. When stimulated by the right environmental and educational conditions, personal desire, and self-directed action, this latent potentiality could be realized, much like a dormant seed induced to blossom. The realization of individual potential demanded engaged, rigorous, and sustained activity directed at a purposeful end that contributed to society. Such activity was a process, but also a disposition of the spirit that could be cultivated, stimulated by a genuine motivation to pursue knowledge for its own sake and for its contribution to humanity.
In viewing Bildung from a contemporary perspective, we might interpret it simply to mean education in an instrumental sense, but this does not capture the spirit of the word, Bildung was not a practical end per se, such as a student who sought university education to gain a prestigious job, or a painter who learned the techniques of his or her métier merely to sell work. Rather, Bildung was a deep commitment to knowledge itself, and, according to Schiller and Goethe this commitment, deserved to be honored as an exemplary human goal.
Likewise, the Beautiful Soul was the symbol of self-directed activity intended to release pure human potential without regard to a person’s ego. Some actions of a Beautiful Soul that were often cited in the 18th century were, for instance, a good deed that was performed without the public knowing of its existence and pursued for no other reason than to do good, or an instrument that was played without the intent to receive accolades from an audience, or a subject that was mastered without seeking adulation for one’s erudition. A Beautiful Soul was not seduced by fame, power, or recognition. Those who craved immediate gratification and social admiration were thought to lose the motivation and qualities necessary to perfect their soul.
By removing self-cultivation and the Beautiful Soul from external forms of validation, Goethe, Schiller, and Humboldt believed that the individual was freed to follow a true course necessary for his or her personal development and to overcome the superficiality of intellectual artifice and social façade. In so doing, one moved beyond evanescent pursuits derived from fashionable social preferences and transitory circumstances that had no reference to or significance for the ultimate ends of human existence. In practicing Bildung and die Schöne Seele one submitted to a rigorous set of values and conduct that were complete, all-encompassing and defined the worth, meaning, and purpose of Being. Like the Platonic forms, however, Bildung and die Schöne Seele, promoted abstract ends of beauty, truth, and goodness that could never fully be attained—to approach their realization and be guided by their principles was reward enough. The aspiration and actions directed towards these ends, not the ends themselves, validated the concepts and honored the life that was lived in their pursuit.
Despite these stringent demands, the pursuit of self-cultivation and the Beautiful Soul was not considered a burden to Goethe, Schiller, and Humboldt, but rather a joy and a privilege because they affirmed subjectivity, induced a profound sense of happiness, and promoted personal exploration, adventure, wanderlust, and curiosity, all of which were part of the process of becoming cultivated. The proponents of self-cultivation, most especially Humboldt, advocated for this enlightened understanding of the good life because they believed it ensured a more reflective and stable society. They advanced ideas of education and the state that afforded individuals the greatest opportunities to pursue these experiences and find fulfillment in the products of culture.
Similarly, the Beautiful Soul encouraged self-exploration and individual freedom to shape personal identity. Emphasis on the individual was not intended to remove him or her from the world but rather to integrate into the full human experience. Schiller believed that if persons pursued actions out of mechanical obedience to moral principles, they would only temporarily postpone an inevitable deviance from morality. But if they felt the freedom to choose and to pursue a Beautiful Soul and, in so doing, transform their minds, spirit, and actions, then they would reach a more perfect state of morality. The emphasis on disciplined, hard work in a search for truth and self-improvement, yet equally on pleasure and freedom to explore and learn from the world was liberating and affirmed both the immediate experience and future potential of the individual.
The principal attributes of the Beautiful Soul were goodness and justice. Coming closer to attaining the state of a Beautiful Soul required a human-centered approach that affirmed the fundamental goodness of humanity and demanded its concerted practice. The Good was considered a source of great meaning and absolute happiness while moral frailty and fallibility was seen as a deviation from natural law. The Beautiful Soul was, to Schiller, a representation of perfected morality, a state of ultimate virtue that overcame the unsavory human qualities of greed, envy, anger, and vanity in exchange for the values of kindness, courage, patience, honesty, loyalty, and nobility of spirit.
According to these concepts, the Good was attained through Beauty. The beautiful, in its relationship to Truth touched upon the form of the Good and the Good possessed the essential characteristics of Beauty. For Kant and Schiller, Bildung and die Schöne Seele attained the Good by cultivating the subjective, sensory experience of beauty which, by opening one’s horizons and developing the senses, strengthened faculties of empathy that led to a deeper compassion for others and attentiveness for the wellbeing of the social collective. The act of looking at a beautiful painting, for example, elevated a person beyond ego and self-absorption into a realm of universal concern and contemplation. Beautiful experiences offered an exquisite interlude from a quotidian world of blunted emotions, weakened morals, inexplicable forces, human shortcomings, and unlived possibilities that might otherwise degrade one’s spirit and relationships with others. They provided a lens through which to perceive the elegance of the universe, to revive the idealistic hope and curiosity of youth, and to illuminate from within the ultimate purpose of life.
Beauty also brought clarity to understanding the nature of Being and the value of human association in the collective pursuit of Truth. The sublime knowledge derived from the humbling experience of the Beautiful inspired the desire for the Good and awakened the sense of possibility necessary to live in its image. Beauty became not only an object of philosophical interest but also a mode of living, a way of looking at the world and existing within it. By self-cultivation in the name of the Good, one’s life literally became a beautiful art form, the individual parts elements of an integral composition. Goethe was particularly occupied with portraying life as a work of art that reflected ethical principles and he explored ideas for forming a more “beautiful humanity.” This artistic process of moral refinement gave grandeur and significance to that which might otherwise be taken for granted as mundane; it heightened sensitivity to every action that constituted reality.
The aestheticization of Bildung and die Schöne Seele had a moral urgency, for if every action painted the ultimate canvas of a person’s life, each stroke was critical to the value of the final composition. Creating and engaging with art became a logical path towards the social good and a metric for the Beautiful Soul. However, the good that music or the visual arts produced could never compare to that of the Beautiful Soul itself, for the latter was the ultimate art form, the amalgamation of all creative energies. Other arts were merely tools used to stimulate and pursue the Beautiful Soul. The obvious critique, therefore, that an evil person could produce something beautiful, like a symphony and that this disproved the connection between beauty and goodness did not hold. A person who created beauty did not necessarily possess a Beautiful Soul. Art and aesthetic experience were beneficial and enlightening for all and assisted in this process but they were not the ends; the art of thinking and living beautifully was the end.
Many people during the 18th century from the educated elite to the peasants, from intellectuals and politicians to artists, believed that life was a work of art, a moral poetics, and felt empowered to live it as such through the aestheticized practice of self-cultivation. Bildung did not define the person who should pursue it or demand that he or she excel in everything. Rather it advanced the notion that all people must choose a métier or life course that suits their own needs and nature and was useful in the world. In finding a relevant and meaningful path of cultivation, one’s activities became a symbol of human potential and elevated the individual as a contributor to a collective social good. Bildung was democratic because every person had a skill, passion, or talent that could be applied.
Like self-cultivation, the Beautiful Soul was a widespread and popular concept in elite, bourgeois and working class circles because it was meritocratic and offered the promise of happiness to all who pursued it. It did not depend upon social status, inheritance, or inherent states of being, but rather was formed through a strong work ethic, diligence, and personal commitment that resided in individual agency. Since even the act of thinking beautifully was considered a pathway towards self-cultivation, all could pursue it, even those who did not have the time or resources to engage with art. Its followers formed a new collective cultural lineage that was universal and inclusionary.
These characteristics of Bildung and die Schöne Seele promoted social harmony across divisions of class, status and gender.
In the concept of Bildung, harmony was a multidimensional process starting first with the individual developing a personal concordance of mind, body and spirit. Harmony existed both on the level of individual activity as well as in the totality of actions that came to define a person’s life. For example, the act of writing a poem engaged first with the body, the representation of an idea embodied in the act of writing, then with the mind, the process of thinking critically, the use of the imagination and sensory faculties, and finally with the spirit, the nourishment of the soul in the very goodness of the activity. Through the sustained practice of Bildung over the course of one’s life, the mind, body and spirit were integrated, not just in a singular, ephemeral moment but in a state of transcendence that harmonized the individual with the world and, indeed, the cosmos. Self-cultivation and the pursuit of a beautiful soul were portrayed, especially by Goethe, as a subjective undertaking that aligned with a larger cosmological ordering, an impulse grounded in the essential ontological categories and processes of nature.
This cosmological harmony had religious connotations, especially in the earlier history of the Bildung concept. To self-cultivate was a spiritual exercise, a technique for salvation that led not only to a harmony of the mind but also to harmony of the soul. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Bildung was considered harmonious on two levels: on the subjective level of the mind, body, spirit and soul of the individual, and on the objective level, integrating God, nature and the universe. One could make the analogy that pursuing self-cultivation was like praying in a secular sense. Self-cultivation had a ritualistic quality and daily significance, providing a framework for living and a coherent structure of action. But it was above all a symbol for a commitment to a greater Good. Its’ very utility rendered it transcendental.
That something as pragmatic as self-cultivation could enter the domain of the abstract, symbolic and metaphysical is significant. Bildung superseded mere pedagogical ends and became an entire belief system and philosophical doctrine in its own right. This was one of its great strengths and arguably the reason why it occupied the minds of so many important intellectuals. Both Bildung and die Schöne Seele as concepts remained dynamic, transformative ideals connected to an appreciation of culture and not a permanent system of fixed and inflexible rules of conduct that were impervious to change. They were specific enough to be binding and character building for individuals, but at the same time, abstract enough to reflect upon the human condition writ large, and thereby to remain relevant in an ever-evolving social milieu.
As the concept of Bildung evolved, so too did this transcendental end. By the mid to late 18th century, a third level of harmony in a societal sense was emphasized that provided a conceptual link between personal harmony and objective harmony in a time when humanistic ideas were quickly becoming a pervasive ideology. This gravitational pull towards the collective social good saved Bildung from remaining unserious, at least to philosophy, as a practical ideology and a form of pedagogy with no larger ambitions. Equally Bildung was rescued from its other extreme as an overly ambitious, unfounded utopian ideal without empirical validity. Bildung was able to engage larger ideals and remain socially relevant.
Because Bildung and die Schöne Seele espoused the good and unified the individual, society, and metaphysics in a way that was pragmatically appealing, spiritually convincing and had the potential for social effect, they ultimately became politicized. Bildung’s universality, its abstractness, its concern for the good life, its meta-reflections on the implication of our actions and its intention to engage higher values in everyday experience in a spirit of egalitarianism made it an emancipating philosophy ripe with political potential. Its particular strength during the Enlightenment was that it offered a counter-narrative to a rigid social and political order, providing a new conception of orienting individual action and human agency that embraced quickly changing views. Bildung and die Schöne Seele were seen as radical without inciting revolution. They were practicable concepts on a larger social scale and in the political realm precisely because of their abstract and aesthetic nature.
There were a number of thinkers, most especially Wilhelm von Humboldt, who developed pragmatic plans for Bildung’s implementation on a larger scale. Humboldt’s model of higher education advanced the principles of Bildung in the school system. It promoted accessibility to cultural goods, such as museums, concert halls, and libraries, for all of the German public no matter what their socio-economic position. It institutionalized the subjects and activities that Bildung espoused such as philosophy, literature, and the arts, and encouraged opportunities for personal exploration. Likewise, the Enlightenment salonnières, promoted Bildung by creating a space in their salons where a diverse public came together to self-cultivate by discussing ideas and experiencing culture in a spirit of egalitarianism. Humboldt’s visionary contributions to the educational system, the lineage and impact of which still exists today, and the Enlightenment salon are two of the strongest examples of Bildung’s potential to induce and direct socio-political change. Thus, Bildung and die Schöne Seele became a social and philosophical doctrine, a politicised ideal and a secular metaphysics of human goodness that aligned with the basic belief system of the Enlightenment.
In the 21st century Bildung and die Schöne Seele may appear to be antiquated concepts in a world dominated by instrumentality. But the essential elements of this philosophy are timeless; they have remained vital and relevant from Ancient Greece to Florentine Humanism to the German Enlightenment and continue to offer valuable insights into the human condition today. Reviving such a virtue ethics, and the institutions that promote it, may help us find purpose in our own lives, in our relationships with others, and in our responsibilities to the collective wellbeing. Perhaps now, more than ever before, in the face of an unsustainable and inequitable economy of desire, there is hope, meaning and poetry in the pursuit of the Beautiful Soul.Photo: © Fotolia/nito
Which means the president will be there, too. Actually he will have to face the crowd: tradition requires him to stand in the presidential balcony and shout “Viva Mexico” to the jubilant masses who, under normal conditions, are expected to shout back.
This time, however, many will greet him with anti-Trump cries.
The protestors are not alone. Last week, Mexicans all over the world watched in dismay as their president met with the xenophobic Republican candidate Donald Trump. The hopeful few who gave some credit to the move thought the press conference could prove to be a good PR. Peña could tackle his unpopularity, which is at the highest for any sitting president in two decades, only if he managed to stand up to Trump.
He did not: instead, he stated that he was willing to work with whoever won the White House and went as far as suggesting that Trump’s remarks––about Mexicans being rapists, for example-–had been misinterpreted and should be met with an open mind. In a couple of minutes, the President of Mexico had legitimized him.
And Trump did not flinch. Later that day he delivered one of the most radical anti-immigration speeches in US history. But even after the speech, Peña was still adamant: he had stood up––albeit privately––for Mexican’s interests, he stated in national television. According to polls, 85% of Mexicans felt offended by the whole act.
Later that week Trump appeared to have gained ground in the electoral race. The outrage reached new heights. Newspaper columnist Silva Herzog called the meeting an act of treason. If Mexico had, in any way, helped the candidate get into the White House ––wrote prominent intellectual Enrique Krauze––then it was a historical mistake that no one would forget in the years to come.
During the whole affair Peña reiterated that it was a tradition to invite the US candidates for a one-on-one with the president. At the end of the day, he said, he had invited Hilary, too. But the little clout that this argument had disappeared earlier this week when Hillary Clinton declined Peña’s invitation, on the grounds that she already had the backing of the Hispanic voters.
Peña was left out cold.
Enter the witch hunt. This Wednesday, Peña called for a press conference to announce changes in his cabinet, for, earlier that morning, Secretary of Treasury Luis Videgarray, credited with the idea of the meeting with Trump, had resigned.
Analysts say that the move is projected towards the national elections of 2018. But what Mexicans can’t believe is that they still have to go through two more years of Peña, a president that has been repeatedly been accused of corruption, censorship and contempt for human rights.
But the biggest problem is not even that. The whole Trump affair shows that the president is just not that smart. Worse, he is stupid. And, according to Silva Herzog this is the worst trait for politicians to have. Unlike evil leaders, stupid politicians make harm not only to others, but also to themselves.
We are tired of these kamikaze types.Photo: © Wikipedia/gemeinfrei
In the 17 and 18th centuries, a culture of salons flourished in Europe. Salons were social gatherings in which individuals engaged in the art of conversation in pursuit of knowledge and fellowship. They took place in the private homes of bourgeois women opened to a public, and occurred regularly, usually every week but sometimes every day, often over an extended meal for a group of approximately twenty to forty people. Salons typically had a dedicated core membership, but were always open to new participants and contributors. Ideas and works in various subjects from science, philosophy, and politics to literature, art, and morality were vigorously debated in the salon. Some salons were focused on specific philosophical, cultural and political themes, while others remained generic. These spaces for discourse created a culture of sociability in which the individual cultivated his or her rational, moral, and aesthetic faculties in a community committed to humanistic ideas and intellectual enlightenment. Salons were far more than pleasant social gatherings; they were serious spaces for intellectual projects and advanced ambitious utopian ideals. Perhaps most significantly, as Jürgen Habermas argues in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 18th century salons were critical to the emergence of a democratic, debate-driven public sphere in Europe. There were a number of cross-cultural features shared by many of the salons that help explain their nature, functioning, and contribution to a public sphere that I will elucidate here:
Proponents of the Enlightenment salon believed that every individual had a range of innate abilities and cognitive faculties that could be cultivated and should be developed beyond formal education for the entirety of one’s life. The salon provided the space for informal learning in which those who attended could improve their minds and acquire knowledge in a variety of subjects. The salon was highly interactive and depended on the intellectual contributions of each of its members such that everyone had the opportunity to engage with the subject matter and further his own potential. Those participating in a salon understood that they were entering a space in which typical forms of valorization such as wealth, social status, or family lineage were not prioritized, or to a far lesser extent than in other forms of social interaction. What mattered most were the ideas and knowledge that could be gained from contemplation that benefited the collective. Erudition, wit, inventiveness, the ability to poetically capture an idea or elegantly communicate a concept, these were the cardinal virtues of the salon. Equally, the manner in which ideas were pursued was of great importance. Self-love and arrogance were discouraged for they signaled the wrong motivation for participation.
The ideal salon participant was a person who was uniquely interesting and offered fresh ideas that were well communicated and advanced the conversation. He or she possessed an innate love of learning, exhibited a reflective intelligence, firmly held principled opinions but also demonstrated the utmost sensitivity and thoughtfulness towards others. To be a good listener was as important as being a good orator for it allowed more people to reach their own potential in engaged conversation. Of course, many individuals who entered the salon were not committed to these selfless ideals; their true motivation was self-promotion, as is often the case in any form of human association. But because they were required to adhere to a principle of sincerity to participate in this community, self-adulation was tempered and the space itself maintained an authenticity. The salon favored those individuals who were genuine in their effort to reach their own potential and help others do so in the process.
Unveiling and developing the best qualities of each participant in the salon was feasible because of its intimate scale. Everyone understood the core belief system and character of other participants, and thereby could overcome the constraints of superficial, idle conversation. The salonnière had the opportunity and responsibility to acutely analyze the strengths and weaknesses of her guests and reveal their intrinsic virtues while gracefully challenging their limitations through discourse. Guests had the opportunity to share their personal projects and ideas and receive feedback from the group. Often before a novel was published or a painting displayed, these works would be taken to the salon for assessment. This positive, critical response encouraged the sharing of projects and promoted a culture of creativity and collaboration. Since salons were enjoyable social gatherings that focused on the happiness and pleasure of their members, sharing was most often a positive and self-affirming experience that encouraged and facilitated self-development.
In this respect, the salon was a rehearsal for reality, a space in which participants could test creative projects and ideas in the process of self-cultivation. Equally in the context of the salon, salonnières could experiment in their utopian project of enlightenment, goodness, and human understanding, unrestricted by the conventional boundaries of society. The intimate, theatrical and imaginative space for discourse provided by the salon became a vital test bed for the values that the salonnières desired to promote in society as a whole. Most salons occurred regularly, usually at weekly intervals and even in some cases on a daily basis and their core membership offered continuity for the intellectual interactions. They therefore evolved quickly from a rehearsal for reality into a reality in themselves, forming a self-selecting community that became an important fixture of daily life and a vital organ for public discourse. Salonnières and their guests were expected to act as model citizens, exercising the virtue and compassion practiced in this space in all areas of their lives. Thus the salon’s value system became the larger normative framework of the Enlightenment.
Salonnières emphasized the meticulous refinement of the character and capabilities of each person in society because they believed that an enlightened public would more meaningfully contribute to the commonweal and the Good. The Good was the impetus for all salon activities and was reflected in its foundational ethos and structure. The exercise of human virtue, etiquette, sensitivity, and kindness to others were the paramount rules of salon interactions. The institution of the salon became a model for new forms of human association that produced distinct social benefits. The abstract, philosophical conceptions of the Good were examined in conversations on ethics, normativity and through epistemological inquiry that informed the utopian projects that took place in the salon to create a better and more just world through sustained discourse and social interaction.
In the salon, the good was in many ways achieved through art and aesthetic experience. The visual arts, music, poetry and literature were all important elements of this space. These aesthetic forms did not require extensive background knowledge in a specific intellectual tradition. They provided a shared experience and lexicon that facilitated communication and catalyzed meaningful conversation amongst a diverse public. In keeping with ideas of the time and the philosophy of Kant and Schiller, it was believed by most salonnières that art and aesthetic experience cultivated the senses, thereby making one more sensitive in social interactions. By refining the ability to differentiate color or composition in a painting, for example, a person exercised the acute perception necessary to interpret facial expressions or to consider the significance of word choice. Reading passages from a book that presented the compelling story of a protagonist induced empathy for the character and the author in a way that a non-aesthetic form could not. Aesthetic activity eschewed hierarchy, for everyone could share equally in its enjoyment.
Cultivation of taste and sensibilities meant cultivation of social perception and processes of communicative action. In light of the dominant belief that people were inclined towards goodness, this led to sympathy for others and to mutual understanding. Furthermore, by opening her home to a public and providing cultural experiences, the salonnière revealed her inner psychological state through aesthetic choices and made herself vulnerable to the world. This proffered intimacy opened guests to the possibility of representing themselves authentically, which contributed to the depth and meaning of conversations. The convivial act of sharing an aesthetic experience, in other words, created a foundational atmosphere of mutuality, collaboration and respect for others in a refined environment conducive to productive discourse and reciprocal exchange.
Accounts of the public sphere often present communicative action in abstracted, sterile terms shorn of its pleasurable context. But if non-obligatory forms of association are not enjoyable, then people do not have the incentive to participate. Simply, but perhaps most importantly, aesthetic experience made the salon an ultimately fulfilling and pleasurable institution that enhanced its popularity and contributed to its social impact. Fruit bowls on tables carefully composed as a mimetic representation of a still life, chamber music that filled the air perfumed by elaborate floral arrangements, paintings strategically hung on the walls to evoke admiration and contemplation, and verses elegantly spoken were just a few of the aesthetic details that composed this world, delighted guests and served as a respite from stark reality. The magical, aestheticized space of the salon sparked one’s imagination and excited the emotions. Intellectual exploration was enhanced by full engagement of the senses; social interactions were stimulated by the powerful experience of the beautiful.
For the salonnière of the Enlightenment salon, art and aesthetic experience were considered immediately beneficial and subjectively pleasurable. They were also pursued with the intention of serving the social good through the elevation of culture. Analogies drawn from cultural ends were often used to describe the salonnière. For example, she was compared to a conductor. She was sensitive to the character (instruments) of each of her salon participants (the musicians). Her responsibility was to conduct discourse (the music) in a way that encouraged the best performance and harmonized them in a cultural product that was both beautiful and good for society. Furthermore, the salonnière incorporated past cultural ideals into her philosophical framework and contributed to the creation of a future tradition. A whole genre of salon music, literature written expressly for the salon, and paintings created for display in the salon, as well as countless intellectual encounters that occurred in this space, would forever change the course of European culture. By emphasizing and contributing to cultural production the salon moved beyond its own parameters contributing not only to the lives of its participants but also to the rest of society as the salonnières had intended.
The extent to which the salon could contribute to a larger social good through the elevation of culture might be questionable had it not been grounded in principles of universality, openness and egalitarianism. At a time when social and class divisions were deeply entrenched, the salon was revolutionary in promoting an ethos of inclusiveness. Rights to entrance were based on merit and an inquisitive spirit, not solely on wealth or power. Often for the first time, people of different genders, socio-economic status, religious proclivities, and political orientations came together as presumptive intellectual equals. The women who ran the salons overcame the barriers they faced deriving from little or no formal education, legal rights, and a lack of intellectual, social or political influence in society. They self-educated in their salons, elevated their status from second-class citizens to venerated members of the public sphere and penetrated the male-dominated world of ideas by independently creating an institution that was at the heart of the intellectual and cultural projects of the time. In the German case, specifically, not only were the hosts of salons women, they were also Jewish at a time of significant anti-Semitism. By bringing Christians and Jews together for conversation, they promoted social cohesion in a way that had never before been attempted.
Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, egalitarianism was a goal that was not always achieved and most salon participants still came from relatively limited circles of the elite and bourgeoisie. Likewise, simply because people of different social status congregated in the same space did not mean there was total equality in their interactions. However the fact that openness and egalitarianism were even aspirational principles is in itself revolutionary. Likewise the fact that men submitted to the intellectual leadership of women salonnières and were willing to enter and be associated with a space of (relative) diversity is extraordinary for the time. There are also countless empirical examples to demonstrate that a spirit of equality was indeed accomplished in certain fundamental ways, which are recorded in much of the secondary literature on salons. Furthermore, the salonnières ideological concern for inclusiveness in culture and ideas contributed to a larger paradigm shift from rigid class and status hierarchies towards principles of equality, solidarity and fraternité. By creating an institution of their own that became indispensable to society, salonnières planted the seeds of a new, more progressive reality that is still in the process of becoming materialized.
Although the salon had a social and cultural force, it did not begin as a social movement or political revolution. Its original ambitions were modest, simply to bring people together for meaningful conversations. Salons did not dictate the ends of conversations, nor impose a political agenda or worldview, rather they embraced difference and contrasting ideologies. Their power, interest, vitality, and political efficacy depended upon this difference and diverse salon participants worked together to define its ends. The salon was a microcosm of life; the grief, the beauty, the intellectual thirst, the banality, the joy, the courage and weakness of humanity were all represented, but in a concentrated form that seemed to spontaneously induce personal revelation. False ideas and prejudices could not be left unexamined. Predominant belief systems were challenged and in being confronted with new perspectives and ways of seeing the world, society and politics had no other choice but to evolve accordingly.
Because salons were technically removed from politics by taking place in the private homes of women, they initially escaped censure. Salonnières worked to create an affirmative and trustworthy environment in which participants were able to express themselves in ways that they dared not risk in other social contexts. Countless important political discussions on the state of local and national politics and representation occurred weekly in salons focused specifically on the topic of politics. Salons on other subjects such as literature or philosophy also had a political cast by contributing to debates on political theory and practice. The free speech facilitated by the salon kindled radical political disagreements that often brought prejudice and deep-rooted social problems to light, which was the first step towards their resolution. The graceful touch of the salonnières’ moderation allowed for political discourse to become impassioned and controversial while still remaining civil. The aesthetic dimensions of the salons both facilitated and masked their underlying political potential so that, for a time, the salon was able to flourish relatively uncontested. This reflected Schiller’s sentiment that precisely that which is aesthetic and apolitical is best suited to become political. By the late 19th century, however, the popularity and radical potential of the salon became subsumed and coopted by power interests eventually leading to its demise.
Nevertheless, the history of salons attests to the fact that political influence does not always derive from exerting brute force and that political discourse is not always achieved in a sterile and uninspired environment. Political efficacy can take a more holistic approach incorporating aesthetic sensitivity that inspires the capabilities to listen, to learn, to understand, and to empathize with others. The process of enhancing and refining such human capabilities generates forms of association that contribute to individual flourishing, shared structures of sociality, and a deeper reflection on the purpose and significance of human existence.
Understanding and developing the important connection between communicative structures in physical space, community shaped through culture and ideas and continuous forms of social contact grounded in a spirit of egalitarianism, as represented in the history of salon culture, is, perhaps now more than ever before, critical to the progression of human sociability, discursive action, and participatory democracy. In the hyper-accelerated world in which we live the internet and social media “connect” people on an unprecedented scale, but can also isolate them in an endless chain of transient exchanges. It is increasingly clear that many members of the millennial generation crave vibrant face-to-face conversations in concrete space not only connections in ephemeral spheres of cyber-space. Young people want a connection to their friends deeper than a happy birthday note on their Facebook wall, a voice in politics greater than a “like” on a Facebook page, and a more in-depth development of ideas and belief systems than a 140 character tweet will allow. There is a palpable sense of fatigue with a society immersed in vacuous social media posts and narcissistic presentations of self. But few institutions exist that offer an alternative culture, form of community or voice in society and politics. Seeking deeper meaning and more profound connections with others, in an often self-absorbed society, is a daunting and at times disparaged pursuit.
Salons are one way of addressing this modern dilemma of isolation and malaise. They evidently do not replace the internet, social media, or other transformations in communication, which undoubtedly also have great benefits, but they offer an essential foundation for communication that has been corroded in the process of technological advancement, by creating communities around ideas in the real world where they matter most. One of the many problems that salon culture addresses is that unlike internet exchanges veiled in an anonymity which often fuels hatred, ignorance, and misunderstanding, in a salon, one must argue cogently for and publicly justify one’s ideas. Relatedly, since an ideal salon facilitates sustained contact with people from diverse backgrounds who think differently, there is a greater possibility to overcome false biases and wrong assumptions. It is easier to feel compassion for, understand, and responsibly act towards a person (and the groups that he represents) when you look him in the eye, interact with him on a regular basis, and have a more developed knowledge of his personal history, lifeworld, and underlying motivations. A salon offers people a positive and vital opportunity to engage with their fellow citizens through a subtle balance of sensitively structured interaction, self-development, empathy, and collective understanding, which is the basis for a more just, equitable, and secure society.
In a world divided, at a moment when political discourse has taken a decidedly negative turn, threatening social stability and international diplomacy, in a time when prejudice, racism, and intolerance are deeply entrenched, a renaissance of salon culture offers a vehicle for reviving principles of participatory democracy, the social and political emancipatory potential of which is limitless.Photo: © Dragon30 / photocase.de
The situation in Turkey brings a question back to the center for consideration: are Islam and Liberal Democracy compatible? For those who answer yes, the country in Asia Minor has long been a shining example that both these schools of thought and ways of life can coexist. But such an answer was muddled when the Republic’s founder Atatürk had the intention to push Islam as far as possible out of the public sphere and individual private life. A more Westernized way of living and thinking corresponded less to an Arabic and thus to Islamic culture, thus for Ataturk reform was never about blending together the two traditions 50-50. No way.
The undertaking failed in Atatürk’s own lifetime: the call to prayer continued to be sung in Arabic and not, as he had arranged, in Turkish. Religion, he learned, was such an important constant for the people of Anatolia that he could not abolish it altogether. Learning through trial and error, he settled for the fact that religion should at least be modernized. The Faculty of Theology at the University of Ankara would train imams and religious scholars who accepted and taught a new, modern interpretation of the tradition and the holy texts.
A turn to the West, as Atatürk envisioned, was associated with a shift away from the ancestral lifestyle. Similar to Peter the Great’s Russia, where there cultural fights over long beards and traditional costumes, which were dismissed for being un-European, in Turkey old-fashioned Arab-Islamic braids were cut. That was what it meant to be “Western”: neither in Atatürk’s time nor Peter’s time had it anything to do with liberal Democracy. The allure of Europe in these times were tied to something artificial: for the lands on the borders of Europe, economic and military progress and success was connected to a certain cultural affect and fashion. This advertising is no stranger to Western Europe: in the second half of the Twentieth Century, British music, and above all American culture, shaped the lives of entire generations. These processes are never linear. One could call it a tug of war one both sides, between tradition and renewal. That is true in Europe to the present day, where in certain circles the US lifestyle is soundly rejected. That was and is true for Turkey, where Atatürk’s model of the secular republic was always met with criticism and opposition.
The two sides, the Kemalist and the religious circles, hate each other. If you were to meet for example today members of the Istanbul elite, you would hear that it would have been better if the Ottomans had taking up Christianity over Islam. Because, as they reason, the religion of Islam will forever be linked to the backwards culture of the Arab world: Atatürk rhetoric at its finest. Herein lies the difference between Turkey and the Russia of Peter the Great: the Turks are Muslims, the Russians Christians. It should in theory be irrelevant for a Liberal Democracy which religions are practiced in it. But it helps if you compare them to each other, when certain issues exhibit common identity features.
Couldn’t it then be said that, in general, Liberal Democracy and religious thought, regardless of its origin, do not go together? Yes, you could. But this animosity between the Islamic and the Western worlds reaches deeper as part of a conflict that goes back 200 years. At the beginning of the Modern Age in the Islamic world, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt has been enshrined in literature. Although the Emperor of France had no interest in proselytizing the Egyptians, this date of the conquest is considered negative by the Muslim world, and fateful. Everything that the West is, to put it briefly, is seen as foreign and imperialistic. The lifestyle of the West, its freedoms and personal mobility to chose to forge your own destiny, do what you wish with your own body, beyond family and religious customs is seen today throughout the Islamic world as an attack on their way of life and identity.
Regarding the current cultural conflict in Turkey it is no different: just like how Mr. Putin mourns the demise of the Soviet Union, so too does Erdogan cry over the end of the Ottoman Empire, whose land was carved up by the Europeans, and the rest is, sadly, history. Erdogan and his inner power circle have reintroduced the narrative of the Ottoman Empire and its Sultan into the Turkish consciousness. From the depths of history to the present day explains what is right now happening in Turkey: the Islamic World, indeed the whole world has lost its only example of how a Liberal Democracy and Islam can go together. Therein lies the whole tragedy: as of today, the Islamic world from Nigeria to Pakistan is in turmoil and war. In a nutshell it is the conflict between tradition and modernity, which in Europe has lost religion. At the moment it is a point of victory for the traditional powers, with the consequence of a caged and castrated youth in Iran and elsewhere. Turkey was a hope. This hope is dead.
The question of whether Islam and Liberal Democracy are compatible is one that’s poorly constructed: neither Islam nor Christianity in their pure doctrinal nature are compatible with Liberal Democracy. The crucial question is whether Liberal Democracy as a life model is more attractive than a religiously imagined world. That has been the case in the West for the past seventy years or so, but the future is from here uncertain. What right now is true is that in the Islamic world, liberal democratic life concept cannot flourish.Photo: © Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
The future of Europe is in the hands of the EU Commission which is responsible for the negotiations about the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership. If signed, will be the biggest trade deal in history. It would cover trade between the European Union and United States economies – half the world’s gross domestic product and nearly a third of world trade flows. In a nutshell the main objective of the TTIP is to extinguish obstacles to trade between the EU and the US. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
The secrecy of the entire agreement is the first warning signal. Only a handful of people have access to the negotiation documents, but only after entering a highly secured room in which they have to leave electronic gadgets out and are observed at all times. Both American government websites – The United States Mission To The European Union and The Office Of The United States Trade Representative – do not provide any updated information about the negotiation. It merely publishes public opening statements at press conferences – the latest one from the 12th round of talks in February this year, although another conference happened again in April.
Europeans protested against the TTIP, but little was known about what was being negotiated until May 2nd when Greenpeace (Netherlands) leaked ¾ of the existing consolidated texts as of April 2016. It shows what each part of the trading table wants in each segment. What most people feared was true.
The article x.3, for example, is about agriculture. The EU wants both parties to encourage research and innovation and share practices to secure viable food production at the same time ensure the sustainable management of natural resources. The US wants to promote a robust global market for food products; avoid “unwarranted trade measures that increase global food prices, in particular through avoiding the use of export taxes, export prohibitions or export restrictions on agricultural goods; develop innovative new agricultural products and strategies that address global challenges related to the production of abundant, safe and affordable food.”
It seems obvious that the United States wants its agricultural products to enter Europe without questions asked. If signed, the TTIP could open Europe’s door to genetically modified (GM) food and crops. According to Greenpeace, “under such a system, a pesticide that is scientifically linked to cancer could still be approved, unless there is a 100 per cent consensus on its harmful effects.” It is the American way of life versus the European. Quantity versus quality. To be fair some standards are higher in the US than in EU, such as laws for car pollution and toxic chemicals in toys. These standards would also have to be revised to meet European standards.
According to The Guardian, there are over 30.000 corporate lobbyists in Brussels where the EU Commission is based and 75 per cent of European legislation is influenced by these lobbyists. The Corporate Europe Observatory website explains 597 secret TTIP meetings occurred with the EU Commission from January 2012 to February 2014 and 528 of them were with business lobbyists. The same source released emails from seed industry, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Limagrain and other GM organizations, inviting EU delegation for a private meeting. In the meetings, the seed industry wanted to focus on three priorities for TTIP: “phytosanitary issues and the role of the bilateral plant health working group can play in this respect, new plant breeding techniques (both see no specific need for regulation) and the presence of GMOs in conventional seed”, The Guardian explained.
Perhaps the biggest threat from the TTIP agreement is the investor-state dispute settlement. The ISDS would allow corporations to sue national governments if they believe their investments are unfairly restricted by regulations. A newly created special court, composed mostly by private lawyers, would have ultimate saying on the subject enforcing a country to abide by its decision.Something similar has happened when the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States in 2015 in a NAFTA suit (the North American Free Trade Agreement between US, Mexico and Canada) claiming that a US law requiring labels on foreign meat was unfair and illegal trade practice, although national courts ruled in favor of the American law.
NAFTA was also signed under the idea of a free trade agreement, but a report by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch released in 2013 to display its impacts 20 years after showed disturbing numbers. “NAFTA created new privileges and protections for foreign investors that incentivized the offshoring of investment and jobs by eliminating many of the risks normally associated with moving production to low-wage countries”. The report also proved that United States had a 580-percent-increase in trade deficit. A similar effect is expected in Europe should the TTIP is signed.
And what about Jobs? The NAFTA caused the loss of one million US jobs since it was created, while politicians promised an increase of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Lower labor standards and trade union rights in the US might be the perfect ingredient to increase unemployment throughout Europe if the TTIP becomes a reality.
It seems this TTIP deal is bad for both parties – and it is – but a strong lobby force behind it is ensuring that talks are ongoing at full speed. President Barack Obama wants to sign the deal before he finishes his term. David Cameron, the UK soon-to-be-ex prime-minister is strongly in favor of the TTIP while Nigel Farage, the leader of the UKIP party which wanted Brits to leave the EU, is against the TTIP. Maybe, just maybe, the aversion to TTIP is the only good outcome for Brexit voters.Photo: © Fotolia / Wjarek
The Damascene regime has recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. By the same token, yet markedly unnoticed by the international media, Islamic State’s Caucasus governorate, proclaimed in summer 2015, claimed a terror attack on Monday March 28 that killed a local Russian police officer and left several others wounded in the republic of Dagestan, located in the North Caucasus region. The timing of the two events was particularly delicate, highlighting the ramifications of Russia’s involvement ever since it openly embarked on its blitz campaign in September 2015 in an unprecedented effort to turn the tide in favor of the al-Assad loyalist camp.
First and foremost, it was the continuous raids by the Russian Air Force that ushered in the liberation of Palmyra, revealing the overrated significance of the reduction in the Russian military in Syria. Therefore, the Dagestan roadside bombing was likely a manifestation of Islamic State’s lethal inventory, still capable of sending a bold retaliatory message to Moscow, and heralding more attacks of its kind toward the end of 2016.
Within the broader picture, the incident also provides valuable insight into a less tangible strategic enterprise that Russia is currently pursuing. Russia fears a further disintegration and erosion of stability in the North Caucasus region, even a threat that is potent enough to menace the swath of former Soviet Central Asian republics. Hence, Moscow is availing itself of the Syrian conflict in order to restore a cordon sanitaire in the periphery along Russia’s volatile southern rim, the Caucasus. Russia’s interference in the Levant thus hardly results solely from the currently often alleged neo-Tsarist power ambitions. Rather, propping up al-Assad has a lot to do with Putin´s unyielding adherence to the concept of state sovereignty.
Since Russia has undisputedly reemerged to relevance as a key stakeholder in the fate of Syria, it must reckon with grave internal political repercussions from the scenario of eroding stability across the region. For the Kremlin, the prospect of what it considers a looming insurgency in its immediate southern vicinity serves as a wake-up call in view of its historical experience with armed Islamist groups in the North Caucasus striving for national autonomy. Foreign fighters of Chechen, Dagestani, and Ingush origin operating at the forefront of the remaining battlefields in Syria and Iraq continue to gain notoriety by fighting fiercely among the ranks of both Islamic State and the 2 Analysis: The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front.
The numerous reports accusing the Russian Air Force of predominantly targeting Islamist factions are therefore not necessarily surprising, as many battle-hardened North Caucasian fighters – who draw from significant experience gained in the past wars over Chechnya – operate in senior positions across Syria and Iraq. These countries, in Russia’s eyes, represent an interlinked issue of external and domestic security. While the Kremlin somewhat deceptively pacified its southern flank by slipping it under the firm control of its security apparatus at the end of the 1990s, it nonetheless fears the negative fallout of religious extremism in the form of erupting violence at home. In that regard, the heavy blood toll exacted by Chechen Islamist separatists in the Moscow theater hostage crisis of 2002 and the Caucasian Emirate-claimed Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011 still reverberate vividly in the nation’s psyche today.
Russia’s concerns are particularly relevant to its dealings vis-à-vis its Caucasian territories of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The latter, for example, received extensive coverage in Russia’s news (though overlooked by Western media outlets) on November 22, 2015, as the Kremlin’s special units reportedly neutralized about a dozen Islamist militants in the mountains in close proximity to the Kabardino-Balkar city of Nalchik, militants who were allegedly planning terrorist activities in both Syria and the North Caucasus. Perhaps the most telling example is the conflict-prone area of Dagestan, whose economic trajectory is shaped by the significant dependence of the autonomous province’s fiscal stability on Russia’s federal budget and by the substantial pauperization of and subsequent unemployment in the easternmost parts of the country, not to mention the devastating destruction left behind in the wake of two insurgencies in Chechnya. These conditions, considered broadly, provide a breeding ground for the spread of illicit activities, further encouraged by their traditional roots in the Caucasus region.
The topical incident in Dagestan highlights the prominent role that Russia’s North Caucasian Federal District plays within its overall security architecture in the region. In geostrategic terms, this role is underpinned by the fact that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus has become the most exposed border region of the Russian Federation, rendering the exertion of the Kremlin’s grip there a challenging task. The land mass it is delicately located between the strategically important Caspian and Black Sea coasts, serving as a gatekeeper to both Sunni Turkish and Shi’ite Iranian spheres of influence.
Within close range of the adjacent post-Soviet space of the South Caucasus across the former republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, other external, opposing power projections can also be felt. The recent escalation over the disputed mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh between the Turkey backed Muslim-majority country of Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia will further require a nuanced diplomatic balancing act on the part of Moscow, as it maintains vital strategic and geoeconomic interests in both countries. In addition, secessionist tendencies, with perilous sectarian overtones, add to the overall picture of a troubled environment on both sides of the Caucasian mountain range.
Nowhere did Russia’s expansion into this Muslim-majority region and its subjugation of the local Analysis: The fallout of Russia’s Syria campaign in the North Caucasus 3 people face more sustained resistance and retribution than in the North Caucasus. After all, although the ethnic composition of the population across the Muslim southern periphery of Russia remains comparatively heterogeneous, and despite non-negligible intra-Muslim animosity, a large number of the region’s people adhere to customs whose roots lie in shared Islamic traditions.
As a result of the ongoing Russian emigration from the region, the share of the native Russian population – tellingly labeled “citizens living internally abroad” – is rather marginal, further fueling the polarity between the disproportionally impoverished local Muslim Russians and the “ethnic Russian” population that, regardless of its numerical minority, maintains its firm grip on the region’s economic powerhouses, the cities of Krasnodar and Stravropol. It is, therefore, in precisely this sensitive context that we should understand Russia’s embarking on an extraterritorial counterinsurgency campaign with the explicit goal of degrading the ranks of Russian jihadists in Syria.
Moscow fears the outlook of dealing with returnees harnessing jihadist militancy on Russian soil and aspiring to transition it into a terrorist hotbed. As Syria and Iraq continue to occupy center stage in the regional power struggle, still luring vast numbers of foreign combatants onto the battlefields, the Russian presence appears to be a double-edged sword: while Moscow achieved unprecedented momentum internationally by shaping the military dynamics –as a matter of fact partially aimed at degrading Islamic State – and stepping to the fore as an at the very least temporary ally to the increasingly regionally assertive role played by Tehran, its intervention will likely spur hostile action, further roiling the region as a whole.
The crash of a Russian airplane over the Sinai Peninsula, caused by an Islamic State–attributed bomb, and the described terror attack in Dagestan serve as the latest reminders of this danger. Quite paradoxically, when resurgent Russia justifies its meddling in Syria with, inter alia, the pretext of protecting religious minorities, its rhetoric places it on a dangerous path that carries an inherent, homegrown risk: the likelihood of exacerbating a widening societal rift, which may well resonate among its own disillusioned and socioeconomically struggling Muslim constituency in its volatile strategic backyard, the North Caucasus.Photo: © U.S. air force, public domain, fhbn
When I was a kid, my cassette recorder got jammed on fast-forward, after I dropped it. That’s what British politics feels like since that Brexit vote. Resignations, recriminations, a Conservative leadership battle where the Brexiteers consumed each other, then imploded, a Labour opposition ripping itself apart. The fast-forwarding didn’t let up today – the day when power was actually handed over.
It was perhaps fitting that David Cameron’s last set-piece event, was Prime Minister’s Questions. He’s always been at his best at the despatch box – a sharp political mind, combined with quick humour and a brutal put-down. Jeremy Corbyn was again the butt of most of his jokes, as the Labour leader squirmed. I’ll come back to Labour later.
The tributes to the Prime Minister were many, warm and genuine. David Cameron machine-gunned the stats about saving the economy, about improving education, about jobs, about bringing in gay marriage. It would have been easier, perhaps, if he had worn an old fashioned sandwich board that screamed „My legacy is not just Brexit”.
A standing ovation from MPs, and then it was back to Downing Street for a last bit of packing. When I go on holiday, I throw everything I can into the biggest suitcase and then get my wife to sit on the lid, so I can zip it up. I’m sure it was a bit more dignified than that behind the door of Number 10 Downing Street, but probably not much.
British politics is at its most brutal when you exit that place. The Camerons had just two days to pack up their things and ship them out. For the civil servants it’s effectively „The King is dead, long live the King”, as they prepare immediately for the new incumbent. So, the last touches done – David Cameron left Downing Street. I remember seeing Margaret Thatcher wait till she got to the car before wiping a tear. I was there when Gordon Brown came out with his two sons.
Today, as I was reporting for BBC World News, David Cameron – not even 50 – left the place he’s occupied for six years. He said it had been a lovely home for his three children to grow up in and his wife had kept him ‘vaguely sane’. He couldn’t have dreamed it would end like this. He did well to disguise the disappointment, in his final comments. Dignified, another chance to set out his legacy – and then he was gone – the final journey to Buckingham Palace. And that was that.
With seamless choreography, Theresa May’s car swept her into the Palace not long after. The first chance for the Queen to welcome her 13th Prime Minister – the third who wasn’t even born when she came to the throne. The ‘kissing of hands’, although I’m not sure that actually gets done; a private conversation, the first picture. Then the journey back to Downing Street as the country’s new leader.
On Monday, Theresa May thought she had two months to sort out her plans, what her government might look, the direction. Two days later, we were streaming live on the BBC as she was there outside Number 10, telling the country how honoured she felt, how she would govern for everyone, the challenge of implementing Brexit. She describes herself as, „not showy”, someone who just gets on with the job. And boy, what a job she faces.
Once the welcomes were done – the work began – with her first Cabinet. Gone was the Chancellor, George Osborne, a serious break with the past. In came Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. David Davis, an ardent Eurosceptic was put in charge of the Brexit negotiations. One Conservative MP described the next 72 hours, as a period where you have to „endlessly congratulate others, while secretly thinking, it should have been me!”
The relationship with Europe is the issue that will dominate the next few years. Such is the speed of events, other governments wait to learn what the British position will be. Capitals like Delhi and Beijing will also watch with interest, to see if their relationship with Britain changes. Expanding trade in those markets will be critical, if there’s to be a counter-weight to the economic hit that’s expected with Europe.
As Theresa May mapped out the direction of the Conservatives domestically, the Labour opposition is in total freefall. It is open warfare between most of the Labour MPs who think that Jeremy Corbyn is not up to it, and the leader, who says he has massive support from the grassroots.
A leadership battle has started and could end up splitting the party. Perhaps as voters have realigned over recent years, political parties are ultimately going to have to do the same. And so the day closes – with a new occupant in Number 10. And yet, with a parliamentary majority of just twelfe for Theresa May, there are huge difficulties ahead. Every relationship, both domestically and internationally, is going to have to be redefined.
As he delivered his final Prime Minister’s Question Time, David Cameron was teased about perhaps becoming the next England football manager or the next presenter of the TV programme Top Gear – but the veteran Conservative Ken Clarke made a more serious plea. He said, „no two people know what Brexit means” and he urged the former Prime Minister to continue to advise from the side lines.
Not sure what Theresa May made of that. But Mr. Cameron rehashed his famous putdown of Tony Blair, when he told him „you were the future once”. Today he wryly observed: „I was the future once”. For him, that’s how it ends. For Theresa May this is how it starts. As for my old cassette recorder, the fast forwarding did eventually stop. But it was never quite the same.Photo: © Fotolia / chrisdorney
In past decades, the UK has mostly been a hindrance of ever closer union and the federal development of the EU. Usually it has made life difficult for those working for stronger political powers for Brussels vis-à-vis nation states. It supported eastern enlargement – including that of Turkey – so that it could weaken the Franco-German center of gravity of Europe. Now we have a historical moment in which most major powers within the Union are again becoming interested in strengthened central coordination. Without such enhanced coordination powers, it is difficult to see how Europe can overcome the present crisis. With virtually no economic growth, enormous levels of unemployment across the Mediterranean, and sustained institutional uncertainties across the EU, enhanced coordination is more vital than ever. No national governments can do this job, as this is neither possible politically, nor institutionally, nor morally. The alternative of ever closer union is disintegration: either the center ejects the periphery by stopping financing it, or center countries eject themselves from a failing Union as the UK has just done. Europe cannot continue to form a non-optimal currency zone, kept together with institutionally unauthorized interventions by the ECB, with no hope of fixing up structural weaknesses. Without legally permitted, substantial fiscal transfers within the union and EU-wide rules actually enforced by the Commission, Europe will never work. This will create ever increasing political tensions both in the center and across the periphery, utilized by far more blatant enemies of liberal democracy than Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.
This may be the moment of pushing for the formation of a European public; a public that has not existed before, leaving national governments the only major political players in Europe. Their handling of the crisis has proved insufficient to say the least, and it is difficult to foresee any major improvement under current conditions. We at the eastern fringes of the EU are deeply interested in finding workable solutions to this crisis and forming a European public that hold leaders accountable in case they failed to implement those solutions.
In past years in the East, we have mostly elected leaders who have been happy to form alliances with the UK so that Brussels cannot curb their provincial prerogatives. Now they have lost a major ally in their anti-EU “freedom fight”, which is of course only waged against EU political interference not against EU money. This is a welcome development and we pro- EU eastern citizens should now be able to push for an ever closer union more than before. This should mean less power for nation states and more power for the EU, and we need to persuade our fellow citizens that they would be better off if development funds were overseen by democratically accountable European political bodies instead of our clientalistic governments.
Strengthening central coordination and letting a transparent and democratically accountable EU solve the crisis is the only possible solution. Europe must live up to its moral, political and institutional standards, and failing to do so must be sanctioned both in the center and the periphery. This cannot happen without curtailing the prerogatives of nation states that are themselves unable to maintain competitiveness and liberal democracy at the same time in a globalized world, even if the majority of the UK electorate believed the other way.Photo: © Getty Images
In their attempts to make sense of the outcome of the Brexit referendum, European analysts treat Britain as being fundamentally different from continental Europe. They present the tribes inhabiting the British Isles as the quintessential ‘other’. The boorish behavior of the two faces of the ‘Leave Campaign’, the buffoonish ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the seemingly permanently grinning leader of the nationalist UKIP party Nigel Farage, certainly makes it tempting to agree with both European commentators and with the Asterix quote.
However, the problem with this kind of analysis is that it views the referendum through a lens that only allows us to see the mud-slinging contest that has been dominating the Conservative Party and the UKIP Party in recent weeks. In doing so, European analysts have missed the target by a wide margin for two reasons.
Both the traditional and populist rightwing camps on their own would have been incapable of tearing Britain out of the EU. It was, in fact, the very significant Eurosceptic minority amongst the British Left that pushed the U.K. over the edge and thus out of the EU. Too many leftwing Eurosceptics either voted in favour of Brexit, or they simply stayed at home. What unites rightwing populism and the populism that, against all expectation, made Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the Labour Party is a deep-seated skepticism towards the EU.
It needs to be said that Corbyn and his supporters define themselves as being Europhile. Yet their vision of Europe is directed against a supposedly evil ‘neo-liberal‘ EU. It was thus no surprise that Corbyn’s speeches for the ‘Remain’ camp came over as just about as enthusiastic, authentic, and truthful as someone delivering a speech with a pistol held against his back would be.
The ‘Remain’ side also lost the referendum because a significant number of Scots failed to take the referendum sufficiently seriously, as evident in the comparatively smaller voter turnout in Scotland. As the overwhelming majority of Scots hold positive attitudes towards the EU, it was difficult for many Scots to imagine quite how different popular sentiment in England and Wales was. There was far too little effort in Scotland to get people out to vote. When I recently visited my German hometown of Breckerfeld, I saw exactly the same number of election billboards as I did in Aberdeen, where I now live and work: none. In vain did I try to find cars in the north-east of Scotland bearing ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ bumper stickers.
Yet there is an even more important reason, than the failure adequately to take into account leftwing and Scottish behaviour, why analyses of the Brexit referendum that treat Britain as the ‘other’ are flawed.
In fact, Britain will leave the European Union, not because Britons are different from continental Europeans, but because they are almost exactly the same. This is why it would be a big mistake for European leaders to try to prevent a contagion of the Brexit crisis by treating the British government in secession negotiations as harshly as possible.
According to a recent survey of the Pew Research Center carried out in ten EU member states, almost exactly the same share of the British, German, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish population harbor Eurosceptic views. People in France and Greece hold even more hostile views about the EU than the British do. Only nations to the East of the former ‘iron curtain’ still hold overwhelmingly positive views of the EU.
The outcome of the Brexit referendum is a symptom of two interlocking crises that hold all of Europe in a tight grip: a EU crisis created inadvertently by pro-EU elites and a crisis of globalization. Both crises have driven voters across Europe into the arms of populists.
For far too long, European elites have ignored the will of the people in a paternalistic fashion, believing that they know better what is best for the people than the people themselves do. When, for instance, electorates in France and the Netherlands voted down the European Constitution that had been drawn up in the early 2000s, EU elites faced a choice.
They could either accept the outcome of the French and Dutch referenda, or make their case more persuasively in the hope that that would convince the people of the need for more integration. In the event, they did neither. Instead European governments simply met up in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and drew up a treaty that repackaged the contents of the European Constitution that had just been voted down. In doing so, they sneaked the Constitution in through the backdoor. Behavior of this kind, driven by arrogance towards the people, has fuelled populism across the continent. And it has thus inadvertently fanned a process of European disintegration.
Euroscepticism and disintegration have been fuelled further by a feeling held by many in Europe that they are the losers of globalization. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are worse off than they were in the past. And they have lost hope that their children’s future will be brighter than their own. They are not just afraid of a loss of national sovereignty. They are just as worried about a loss of their own personal sovereignty. Their perception is that, in a globalised world, the EU does no longer allow them to determine their own lives and hence to be masters in their own house.
Perceptions like these are the perfect soil for populists on both sides of the political spectrum to flourish. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Beatrix von Storch on the political right, but also figures on the Left such as Jeremy Corbyn or at least initially Alexis Tsipras are seen as their advocates and the defenders of their rights by those who feel betrayed by the political establishment and by globalization.
If the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the growth of political populism will be accepted as a wake-up call to stop doing ‘business as usual’, something positive may come out of the British referendum. Populism would lose the oxygen that sustains it, if the right political lessons are drawn from the referendum. This would particularly be the case if ‘the people’, particularly those on the losing side of society, will in the future be treated with more respect.
However, with every day that populists are provided with stages from which they can preach, the political foundations of our societies become more porous and political discourse becomes more polarized.
As the Brexit referendum and all the other recent European crises reveal, any consensus about the future of our continent has long evaporated.
For one, three fundamentally different approaches as to how Europe can best survive in a globalised world compete with each other. Some believe that small innovative units (in the form of nation states) can best respond to the challenges of the 21st century . This view competes with the belief that only networks of states will allow Europeans still to be masters in their own house in the future . Others argue that only the formation of the United States of Europe will allow Europeans to lead a self-determined life a globalised world
In addition, three starkly different visions about what makes a good society and political economy compete against each other all over the Western world: a leftwing vision that blames ‘neo-liberalism’ for all the ills of society, a liberal worldview, and a national-conservative set of values. Recent years have indeed witnessed a return of ‘history’, in other words a reemergence of ideological strife in the West.
Nevertheless, despite a lack of consensus about the future, there is unlikely to be immediate doom. In the days and weeks to come, European governments and EU institutions and domestic political actors are likely to make deals and find compromises in order to prevent an immediate collapse of the EU.
The main challenge of Britain and European is, however, not the prevention of a spectacular collapse. There has been far too much of a tendency among journalists and historians to look at ‘big bang’ events in order to make sense of the collapse of states and societies. Yet, in fact, states, institutions, and federations often do not disappear with a ‘big bang’ in revolutions and wars. Far more often, they slowly degenerate over time. This is where the real danger of the rise in political populism lies, for it is the rise of populism that destroys the ability of the societies in which we live to reform and to find lasting and genuine compromises.
If Europe will not take immediate steps to address this problem, the foundation of our common European house will soon be so porous that first its roofs and subsequently its walls will fall in. The EU will then look just like a ruined Scottish castle: picturesque but defenceless. A self-determined life will then no longer be possible for its inhabitants in the globalised world of the 21st century. Neither Britons, nor Europeans elsewhere will then still be masters in their own house. This is why we urgently need to build a new, a better, a stronger, and a different Europe.Photo: © DavidQ / photocase.com
Angela Merkel has emerged the loser from the refugee crisis. And, alongside her, the Kantian imperative, a philosophy deeply entrenched in German culture, has lost as well. This is true despite 70 percent of Germans professing a moral obligation to help refugees and people in need. Derived from the Golden Rule, this obligation has even entered the German language in idiomatic form: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To Kant, for whom religion was mostly a reservoir for moral rules of action, it also suited the universal approach to ethics in the Enlightenment era. His moral imperative remains a cornerstone of German ethics. But despite the high approval ratings, this past year Germany has witnessed the rise of a massive right-wing populist movement strongly opposed to Kant’s dictum.
Citizens in other European countries express less of a moral obligation towards refugees. For example, the English have struggled to understand the actions of the German government: “The Germans have gone crazy,” they say. Or, in the English parliament: “Angela Merkel has become impertinent.” Something about the English has become clear: defined by David Hume’s utilitarianism, they could not be further from Kant, who looked at a thing by its very nature (“a thing in itself”) rather than at its overall usefulness.
This split in national philosophical tradition does not originate in the refugee crisis – indeed the philosophers have articulated a wide-ranging divergence in British-German thinking. For example, the two countries differ in their approaches to stem-cell and embryonic research: in Germany, where utilitarianism is insignificant compared to the greater cause, the purpose of the research does not justify the means. When a moral issue (i.e. euthanasia) is molded into German law, there is no party discipline in the Bundestag: an obligation to a party’s position does not apply. Rather, the Bundestag member is free to vote according to conscience.
The English are not alone in accusing the Germans of “moral imperialism,” and it is not entirely without reason: Germany has always understood Europe to be a project of values, not simply a common market as England would have it. However, responding to the refugee crisis, Merkel’s European partners did not follow the German commitment to morality, and so the Chancellor lost. She had hoped to lead other European countries by example to allow the distribution of refugees under the applicable provisons for the Member States of the EU. Gradually, however, countries along the Balkan route closed their borders, and an Islamophobic nationalism has reemerged in Hungary, Slovenia, and Poland. These parties are the ones leading by example: in Germany, an anti-Muslim right-wing party (Alternative for Germany) made it into three regional parliaments.
Angela Merkel’s project, and indeed the Kantian imperative, has failed. And with it, so has her vision of a Europe committed to the values Erasmus of Rotterdam long ago spelled out: Europeans united by the spirit of Christianity to fuel a new humanism. Only, back then, those values wilted in the face of the Reformation and its subsequent wars.
It’s argued that Merkel, a pastor’s daughter, has responded to the refugee crisis as a Christian would. She rejects this claim, completely á la Kant: the moral imperative is not to be applied ad libitum, but in all cases. Other European politicians, however—Helmut Kohl, Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet—derived their politics from Christianity’s moral sources. Their political Christianity and accompanying political theology have, since the late 19th century, stood related to and yet distinct from both social democracy and liberalism. Yet, today in Europe, all three political systems are under attack at what may not be the best time, testing the political cohesion of the Union. The Chancellor, head of a Christian party, once told those who feel threatened by Islam to read the Bible and go to church. Yet this may not be great advice: religion for many Europeans is a matter of cultural kinship, not spiritual belief. That is why religious Muslims frighten most Germans. So when Merkel said that another culture does not limit the extent of one’s own, the notion ran into the void – and has for some time all across the continent.
In 2011, a large survey tested the depths of xenophobia, islamophobia, and misogyny within eight European countries. With the notable exception of the Netherlands, these undemocratic attitudes had found purchase with at least a third of Germany, England, France, Italy, Portugal, Poland and Hungary. Mrs. Merkel was thus too optimistic: she overestimated the extent to which her constituents would appreciate a political realignment along Kant’s philosophy (not to mention how that approach would be received in the rest of Europe). Rising uncertainty, exacerbated by globalization and digitalization, strengthens the new right-wing parties from Denmark to Greece. Calls for a strong man are common. This is why the new right pays homage to Vladimir Putin.
The Germans appear to have long adopted a philosophical Sonderweg. Politically this has at least been true under Angela Merkel’s tenure: abandoning nuclear energy, dealing with the financial crisis, and responding to the refugee crisis, Germany has argued and acted confidently, yet differently than any other EU country and without consulting them beforehand. To what extent can we chalk up this difference to Kant? The German approaches to energy and finance are linked in a peculiar way to matters of principle and morality, but in the refugee crisis, there is a clear reason to act according to Immanuel Kant: real people are in a specific emergency.
Morally, Europe today is in ruins—much as it was during the time of Erasmus. For a brief moment, the Willkommenskultur and the Wir schaffen das mentality (recall the fall of 2015) seemed to be the realization of Erasmus’s dream. The continent, however, is falling back upon its nation-states, back to the Europe drawn by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which culminated, ultimately, in two devastating world wars. Some say Angela Merkel gambled (and now lost) the legacy of her great European predecessors. The opposite is true: Europe was either going to be a moral entity, or not be at all.Photo: © Bundesregierung
Divorce is messy, and uniquely so. Nowhere else are we so regrettably obliged to extricate the threads of our legal, economic, and emotional wellbeing. Brexit might come close, though. Leaving the EU would be an emotional and expensive legal headache for both the UK and its bi-national couples, with Britain footing most of the bill.
It works like this. Research conducted by the Centre of Population Change at the University of Southampton and recently published by Population Europe concludes that EU citizens in the UK consist mostly of working-age individuals in work. They tend to be both better educated and more likely to be employed than their native-born counterparts. Not surprisingly, they overwhelmingly tend to be net contributors to the British welfare system.
But they would be inclined to emigrate again should the UK decide to abandon the EU. Voting to leave would be seen as an endorsement of the increasingly restrictive policies vis-à-vis EU immigrants being adopted by the government since 2014, and we know that countries with less discriminatory policies are better at attracting the talent their economy needs.
This complicates things for Britain’s bi-national couples. Marriage certainly shields EU citizens married to British citizens from some of Brexit’s promised legal uncertainty, but not all of it. It will not, for example, necessarily protect them from employers’ jitters about paying someone whose right to work may be in limbo. Access to social entitlements may also be at risk, or at least perceived to be.
This is to say nothing of the effect on their children, whose nationality and citizenship status may be left up in the air for all but the most adept bureaucracy navigators.
Couples’ response will likely be to seek citizenship for the non-British partner. Ironically, this will entitle them to even more social benefits than they would have had otherwise. One need look no farther than British citizens in other EU countries, who have already begun applying for non-UK citizenship. The difference is that as other net contributors leave the UK, it will come at a higher cost.
To be sure, even if Britain votes to stay, the referendum will already have begun to have a strong deterrent effect, particularly for the most talented, who tend to (understandably) want to go where they feel welcome and privileged.
But not everyone will stop coming. Population exchange has been a continuous phenomenon throughout human history. Walls, border patrols, and restrictive policies cannot stop it in the long run. They can be painful for our partners, though. And, even before the lawyers, they don’t come cheap.
Knowledge of these consequences will not likely persuade the most ardent Brexiteers, but policymakers and public opinion leaders should bear them in mind—perhaps as they recall why we were together in the first place.
Mr Pinker, you focus your work on cognition and language. In regards to politics, peace and negotiation in a digital age, how do cultural differences affect the way countries work amongst each other?
There are no obvious ways in which cultural differences have affected international negotiations. Everybody in the international arena is in a position where cultural stereotypes are not included in negotiations. I don’t want to rule out that there are cultural differences and norms across international parties, but they are not obvious.
You say we have more types of violence these days, whilst scientific research claims there is less. Is this due to our brutally violent history? What, or who, is responsible for the decrease?
Of course there are factors such as globalization – countries are more enmeshed, so their welfare is directly impacted by the welfare of another state. The incentives for conquest and invasion have been outnumbered by the incentives to make business – what that means is that a person alive is worth to me more than a dead one, or buying a good is easier than stealing one. Another factor is the change in value systems. Wars were fought over religion, over nationalism, over what script systems to use. Now, each country has their own land and their own language. Also, there has been a global trend toward humanism, where the ultimate goal is achieving health for women and children. When I say global though, it does not mean that it has taken over the entire planet. Since we are tribal creatures, there is always a temptation to backslide. Comparing the two halves of the twentieth century though shows you that there is a clear trend toward humanism – why else would we have strived so energetically towards signing a Universal declaration of human rights? And the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals all state the welfare of humans as the ultimate good.
Is that the difference between Europe and the U.S.? Is Europe today still shaped by “tribes” such as religions and nations that are divided amongst borders that were drawn up to centuries ago, whilst in America these don’t exist so explicitly?
Yes, it is one of the differences. Partially, that’s why I believe there is so much less radical Islamization in the United States – it’s easier to become an American than it is to become a Spaniard, a Frenchman or a German. Another contributor to the decline of international violence has been a changing set of norms in institutions. The UN and NATO, the African Union and EU emit soft power, they communicate a certain level of expectation. These norms are toothless – whether that’s good or bad is a different question – but they serve as a restraining force. These norms include that you don’t change borders by force anymore, you don’t conquer other countries, etc. This, of course, isn’t always followed, as we saw with the annexation of Crimea; but by and large this has been a great contributor to a more peaceful coexistence amongst nations.
Some say that even Putin would not admit that he violated these norms because that is one of the principals of the post-Second World War world…
…yes – there is the fiction of Putin satisfying the will of the Crimean people. The rest of the industrialized world teamed up to condemn Russia’s actions and impose sanctions shows you that the norm is still in existence, even though it may not be observed always. But we need to remember that when we talk about the decline of international violence, the extent is threefold. We have wars, but there is also ordinary crime and institutional violence. If you don’t live in a war zone, it is far more likely that you are killed by homicide than through any other way, so all discussion about violence must keep ordinary crime in mind. Here, there has also been a crass decline – the rate of crimes committed has dropped significantly ever since the middle ages, saw a spark again around the 1960s, but since 1990 has been dropping and dropping. The third area is institutionalized violence – corporal punishment, capital punishment, the criminalization of homosexuality, just to name a few examples. In the West, this has declined significantly.
Let me go back to the point of trading and dropping the incentives to commit crime – a very utilitarian point. But would you think that we can only have peace if we maintain trade? In other words, would it be possible to have peace for peace’s sake, simply because it is the moral thing to do? Kant, in his writing The Perpetual Peace…
…ironically, Kant’s writing was very utilitarian. He said that if trade exists between two countries, it is less likely that they attack each other. His embrace on republicanism – or arguably democracy nowadays – was also utilitarian. There is a difference, though, between the historical and the actual question. I look into why the rate of violence has dropped, and the moral question – what are we ought to tell and teach people? Certainly, I agree with the principles, but it may be a bit unrealistic to think that every person on this earth abides to a value such as that every life is equally sacrosanct. Looking back to explain to what we attribute our development, part of it is the utilitarian calculation – if there is incentive, regardless of morale, to stop fighting, then so be it.
Then again it may be that not being value driven is beneficial for a state. Take the Germans in the refugee crisis for example. In European history, looking at the summum bonum, most of the time striving for the ultimate good actually lead into war…
…if it was the wrong summum bonum. Wars were, and still are, fought for religious purposes, for national glory, or the triumph of a communist utopia, for example in China, the USSR or Cambodia. A shift in the summum bonum towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently. It almost sounds too good and easy when you hear it – who would be opposed to any of this? Notions such as the existence as salvation in the afterlife is very different from human flourishing, or the glory of the nation.
That is interesting! Though if not religion, is there anything that can replace that motivation in our digital age?
We have made fantastic progress in human flourishing despite setbacks in Russia and Turkey. Despite all the progress that has been made, in education, health, diplomacy, I think there is still a failure of politicians, journalists, the “intelligenzia", to show that there is more to strive for still. We will never reach a utopia, but the bettering of the human condition could still happen quicker.
Do you think this process is reversible, though? Are we experiencing a golden age and have dark years ahead, or is it that these standards and values are here for good and will stay?
The honest answer is: I don’t know. Threats such as Boko Haram and ISIS can, and they are, exaggerated. The human toll of Civil war has increased over the past year, but it is merely taking us back to the casualty count of the year 2000. The progress we made in the 1970’s, ‘80s and ‘90s has not been wiped out, and although there have been threats to democracy, democratization has not been wiped out as such. The civil wars we see are central to an area that spans from Western sub-saharan Africa to Pakistan. Of course the standards we have set are reversible – diseases can come back, religion can and has already led back to war. What we need to do is figure out how to best deal with them, and have confidence that given the progress we have made, further progress is possible.
But how does that help individuals? If you are in Syria right now, it is no good that the overall number of civil wars has gone down. And how does one single act – for example 9/11 – unravel and maybe even topple this model?
Firstly, the experience of violence to an individual is irrelevant to policymaking. If we were to go down that path, we could deny global warming just because it is cold out today. But what effect does this have on third party observers? It has been proven that we are asymmetrically influenced by singular events. This has been exploited by terrorists for example – terrorism being the cause of death is very unlikely in anyone’s life. However, due to the publicity that terrorist attacks generate, it seems like a completely rational fear to be afraid of a terrorist attack when in reality it should not be. It is a mistake to allow terrorism to dominate foreign policy on a global agenda. In terms of everyday terrorism, the harm is the reaction. Keep in mind that 97% of all terrorist agendas end in failure, so it isn’t even a successful mode of achievement.
In Europe, we have a different setup and proportion of religious diversity than in here in the U.S. – how do you look at arising conflicts, and in particular any violence that may arise because of the increasing muslim population?
We have seen that if centrist parties pretend like there is no problem – as the coalition government in Germany has done to some extent – they are implicitly creating a space that gives right-wing parties the opportunity to increase their votes. There are risks of lack of assimilation, misogyny, potentially a higher risk of terrorism. If centrist parties don’t openly state that, someone else will and thus will pull over voters. The hegemony of politically correct views in major political forums has come back to bite us all. If people think that the only way to say the truth is to be Donald Trump or Marie LePen, that is a dangerous temptation.
One of the arguments of the rights in Europe is that Islam is not peaceful and not compatible with the Western way of life. At the same time, you mentioned that the majority of conflicts still happen between West Africa and Pakistan, an area that has almost exclusively muslim countries. Diachronically, and historically, could you claim that in muslim countries there is more war going on than there is in the christian world?
Currently, it is estimated that 10 out of the 11 wars have radical islamist forces on one side. It is not as much that the rate of war in the Islamic world has gone up, but the rate of war in every corner of the world has gone down apart from in the Islamic world. Historically, there has been an awful conquest of Christian nations – the British, Spanish, French, Germans, and so on, so making an argument of that is difficult keeping in mind the atrocities committed by, say, the crusades. Though you have countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia, one can argue that many of the beneficial trends over the past century have not yet penetrated the islamic world. We need to keep in mind that generalization, especially in the context of Islam, is very dangerous – look at countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia. They are democracies to some extent, are peaceful and do not have any kinds of problems that Syria or Mali are dealing with currently. Furthermore, we need to distinguish between dogma and identity claims – the combination of which can intensify any conflict because it makes any rectitude and morality unwilling to compromise. Also, the jihad sees death merely as a transition into an even better life, so during conflicts, fighters act in a completely different way than in any other conflict. I agree that wars aren’t purely religious, but religious views within a conflict don’t help contain a conflict, and never have.
Mr Pinker, thank you for your time.Photo: © Gila Nadir
Throughout the Western World, sympathies for right-wing strongmen are gaining strength. Societies are split down the middle on this. In the USA, the candidates Clinton and Trump are tied in the polls. In Austria, it came to a showdown between the Green candidate Alexander van der Bellen and the Right Nationalist Norbert Hofer. 50-50, half-half these societies are split. For Germany such results have long been the common, admittedly the society hasn’t fallen into radicalism, but this fact has passed over into a sobering parliamentary reality: in two or three previous and current legislatures, the Social Democrats and the Christian Conservatives are forced to govern together. This leads to a stalemate as well, since the most important issues of the future can not be addressed with such a deadlock. Compromises, the lifeblood of democracy, are always stretched to their max under such configurations, and sometimes they are overstretched.
This is probably why people are looking towards Austria with such apprehension: a sudden jump to the Right or the Left has never been good for Germany. And now the Alpine neighbor was prepared to swear in a far-right leaning President. In the end won the man from the Greens, the more moderate candidate, as an outsider can also observe. The Green Party has long been a refreshing normality for the European party-spectrum. The times when they were radical, simply because they had a different style and theme, are long over. But still Norbert Hofer got the second half of the vote in an election which, by the way, had a record turnout of over 72 percent. Has spurring on the radicalization of the political scene at the ends of the spectrum revitalized Democracy?
It seems discernable that democracy, liberal democracy to be precise, must be fought over. Throughout the Western World, neo-national, anti-Islamic, homophobic, gender-hostile political forces have been agitated. With record results they’re able to get out of the stands and into state parliaments, as is happening in Germany with the so-called Alternative for Germany (AfD). Next year there is the federal election, and it is already been calculated how the future German Parliament will be put together, and what role in it the AfD will play.
The fight for democracy is also being led on the Right; the same form and layout of this fight is being used by Marie Le Pen, Norbert Hofer, and Donald Trump. They argue for the purification of democracy from the evils being inflicted on it by certain minority groups. For them, democracy is the rule of the majority over the minority. Liberal democracies, on the other hand, as they have taken shape in the countries of the West, inversely derive their value, their functionality, and their legitimacy by how well they treat minorities.
The trend has for a while been facing the opposite direction. What’s being discussed is what it means to be French, what it means to be English, or what it means to be German. The majority has been ascertaining answers to these questions for a decade. In a globalized world, where all people are digitally connected to one another, questions of identity are crucial. The notion of homogeneous places are therefore being dreamed of outside the West: the expulsion of Christians from the Middle East is due to the homogeneity and superiority dreams of ISIS jihadists. The same goes for the Hindu national dream dreamt by the current government of India.
The election in Austria therefore is just an appetizer: for the Brexit referendum in England at the end of June, which right now neck and neck, for the vote in November in the USA, where the society appears likewise to be split down the middle. Austria is a small country and on today’s world political stage insignificant. Though anyone visiting the capital of Vienna notices immediately that it was once the seat of a huge empire. This applies similarly to Paris and London. A return to former greatness, as evoked by Donald Trump in the USA, can be heard also in France, England, and Austria with similar rhetorical fashion. Austria is perhaps just a precursor for more.
The text was published first at our partner The World PostPhoto: © Hofer
The gnawing question on many minds this year: Who will be following Barack Obama in the White House as the 45th President of the United States? If you want to get the prediction right in this year’s most pivotal political showdown, forget the pundits and pollsters who wreck their brains in predicting which way a fickle electorate is likely to turn. The coveted answer is hidden in an unlikely spot: Where spin doctors and opinion researchers flounder a grandee of popular culture may lead the way. A few years ago the late actor Peter Falk was asked on CNN’s Larry King Show to explain the popularity and longevity of TV serial heroes. Larry King could not have hoped for a better interviewee than the man who over four decades had impersonated the iconic LA police detective Columbo and in the process turned a notoriously capricious and demanding TV audience into a committed and loyal following. The secret to understanding this unrivalled popularity, Falk explained on CNN, was Columbo’s bifurcated public personality. On the one hand there is this modest, circumstantial and perennially dishevelled John Doe type of figure, wearing a rumpled beige raincoat as a token of his thriftiness.
At the same time, Columbo’s sharp mind makes him a genius in his trade who stands out from his more mediocre colleagues ready to face his most cunningly demonic adversaries at eye level. Falk insisted that the blending of both traits – enviable ingenuity and common prosaicness – is what audiences hanker for.
Apparently, Falk’s analysis of the rapport America’s favourite detective entertained with the public proves right with respect to iconic figures in popular culture more widely. Be it in film, music or literature, enduring loyalty and popular support are almost guaranteed for fictional protagonists that are constructed along the principles exemplified by Falk’s Columbo. The beloved action hero Superman is probably the best known case to prove the point: Clark Kent, an introverted, mildly-mannered journalist with a slight slouch morphs into the hero Superman whose transcendent powers avert lethal threats, save the world and in passing cause raptures among his audiences: While Clark Kent’s workday image is not particularly awe-inspiring, his simplicity and apparent ingenuousness many find endearing. Any psychologist would concur and confirm that we tend to like what appears familiar enough to relate to.
Yet for someone who aims to attract a staunch and enthused popular backing, similarity with a somewhat pedestrian audience does not do the trick. Not for Clark Kent nor anyone else. Engineering a charismatic rapport with an ecstatic fan base also requires a display of superior leadership ability which consists of some amalgamated characteristics: Courage and assertiveness blended with the cognitive assets of omniscience and perspicaciousness – four traits widely associated with cherished cinematic super heroes ranging from Superman to James Bond. But can we assume that the recipe that has worked so well in winning over a loyal audience and box office success for fictional protagonists has its bearing in the political arena too? In other words: Do political leaders pass the Columbo test?
The great ones do and the most promising contenders for the top job heed Columbo’s example painstakingly. George W. Bush’s swaggering pose as commander-in-chief complete with fighter pilot gear on board USS Abraham Lincoln was no less accomplished than the images depicting the President as seemingly ordinary farm worker on his ranch near Crawford. More recently, the Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson is enroute to passing the Columbo test. Earlier this year he challenged his own party leadership and Prime Minister David Cameron by championing Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, a cause backed by many Conservative Party grassroots supporters. For them Mr. Johnson just earned the laurel wreath of a rebel who fears no foes in his crusade for national sovereignty and liberation from what is perceived as the EU yoke. The London mayor, a historian and journalist by trade, is aware that heroes easily appear aloof and beyond reach. A scenario he pre-empts by inviting Londoners to address him casually as Boris, while he indefatigably navigates the traffic in the British capital by bicycle on his way to town hall, unceremoniously outfitted with the inevitable high visibility vest and a mundane rucksack – Boris’ equivalent to Columbo’s rumled trench coat.
Columbo’s charisma and loyal support was no inexplicable godsend but the inevitable result of a principle that was consistently applied by the makers of the programme who composed the detective’s script and guided his fictional personality. Politicians employ communication advisors to pull off the same trick.
Looking ahead to the coming months of campaigning until election day in November the scenario becomes clear: By passing the Columbo test the contender testifies to a unique rapport with the public. It is not surprising, therefore, that the respective campaigns of all remaining candidates are consciously or subconsciously guided by the Columbo principle. Admittedly, millionaire businessman Donald Trump at first impression barely qualifies as average citizen, and yet in his own peculiar way he does by voicing themes and uttering sentiments common among many ordinary middle class voters. His language strikingly contrasts with the idiom adopted by the Washingtonian political elite and think tank sponsored gurus. Instead, his tone resonates with the more average punter. A style he melds astutely with his jingoistic outbursts and blatant shows of self-promotion as a great leader with an awe-inspiring record as entrepreneur. Bernie Sanders is perhaps truest to the fictional original – dishevelled hair, hoarse voice, unpretentious demeanour on the one hand, admired champion of the disadvantaged on the other.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton scores poorly on all counts. Neither can she sport recent credentials as a glorious campaigner or political hero nor does her pedigree among the Washington elite lends itself to hopes of rebranding her as the “people’s candidate.” Thus Hillary Clinton is the contender least likely to meet the Columbo principle. While that does not rule out a Clinton presidency, failing the Columbo test makes the stretch of road to the White House a great deal rockier.Photo: © Fotolia
Few knew the German satirist and talk-show host until earlier this month, when he triggered a bilateral crisis between Germany and Turkey by reciting a vituperative poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Böhmermann started his show Neo Magazin in 2013 under the aegis of a secondary channel of the public TV-giant ZDF. Neo Magazin targeted a young, internet-savvy generation, far from the general audience of ZDF. Bohmermann paved his way to stardom by performing clever, mostly internet-based gags that ended up as viral videos across all German social media. His latest hit before the Erdogan uproar? A music video in which he urged a diverse Germany that warmly receives refugees.
Other shining moments include a Hitler take-off (“Haul Hitler”) in which the Fuhrer sells his stuff on Ebay, and a video manipulation of a speech by former Greek financial minister Yannis Varoufakis, in which Bohmermann photoshopped a middle finger onto the minister’s hand, directed at the Euro. Böhmermann’s satirical style has gone down well with the public – he received one of the most prestigious awards in German media, the Grimme-Preis, for his stunts earlier in 2016.
ZDF then rewarded Böhmermann with his very own TV show, “Neo Magazine Royale”, shown as part of the channel’s primetime main schedule. Within German culture, he’s not comparable to what Jon Stewart became in the U.S.—not yet. Böhmermann started like Trevor Noah – a bit more confrontational, with a show structured in a simpler way. In principle, his jokes suggest what a hard time everyone has these days in stating simple truths. German society, much like American society, increasingly places a taboo on what may be said, as well as on when, where and how things may be said. In his down-to-earth way of addressing the audience, Böhmermann most resembles Oliver. Oliver compiles extensive research and turns it into intricate, pointed content, while Böhmermann emphasizes the visual. Both, however, succeed by being in-your-face with the viewer.
Bohmermann’s vituperative poem against Erdogan – who in recent years has limited Turkish press freedom, implemented internet censorship, and violently broken up demonstrations, among his other authoritarian acts—properly and rightfully targeted exactly the sort of leader any satirist should attack. It is, after all, the Erdogans of our world who seek to crush free speech, art and media. The “poem,” however, is not high art. It suggests, in the basest terms, that Erdogan indulges himself with goats and sheeps, and that his private parts stink like Doner, the popular Turkish dish. It rhymes only on the most basic level, does not impress with poetic devices or elegant use of vocabulary. It is classic Böhmermann—in your face. One does not need to credit it as art to recognize it as legitimate satire.
Alas, Bohmermann and many others quickly discovered that an antique paragraph in the German criminal code penalizes the insult of foreign heads of state. Erdogan demanded that the German government prosecute Bohmermann under that section, while also filing a private complaint against him. On Friday (April 15), Chancellor Merkel announced in a brief statement that the German government would permit Erdogan’s action to proceed under the “insult” paragraph, but that the provision would be repealed as of 2018. German media reported much disagreement within the government about Merkel’s decision.
For now, Böhmermann could face up to three years of jail time. Meanwhile radical Erdogan supporters, outraged at Böhmermann, have issued death threats against him. Late last week Bohmermann came under police protection from those threats and ZDF canceled last Thursday’s broadcast of his program.
The Turkish population in Germany now stands at 3.2 million. Their grandparents came to the country as Gastarbeiter (guest labourers) in the 1960s. Erdogan sees them as an outpost in Europe—he has tried to instrumentalize them politically before.
How will Germans react to the government’s decision? We’re waiting to see. Merkel now relies on Erdogan’s cooperation to deal with the refugee crisis. That’s the only explanation for why she distanced herself from Böhmermann in a telephone call with Erdoğan, arranged before Bohmermann’s performance of the poem. According to her spokesman, she called Bohmermann’s presentation “deliberately insulting.” But her remark did not suffice for Ankara. Erdogan’s vice-premier Numan Kurtulmus described the poem as a “crime against humanity”. Such language can only be considered laughable in light of Turkey’s countless crimes against humanity (think Armenian genocide). It shows how Erdogan and his entourage now perceive things like a Sultan and his Ottoman court.
In the meantime, discussion in Germany is heatedly exploring the boundaries of satire. Much cited, in this case, is the writer Kurt Tuchholsky, who observed, “Satire can do anything.” Satire in most cases seems to remind the 1%, the ruling class, the elites, of their vulnerability—that they don’t stand above the people. In-your-face Jan Böhmermann can be seen to have advanced German satire, which boasts a long lineage back (at least) to Friedrich Schiller, who called for “heroism before a king’s throne” in his Ode to Joy.
The continuing question in the Böhmermann case is the one Turkish-German satirist Serdar Somuncu asked on one of the most popular German talkshows: Has Germany, because of its refugee deal with Turkey, become vulnerable to blackmail? Is it now dependent on Erdogan’s mood? The Böhmermann controversy shows the extent to which the Turkish president now influences public life in Germany, dictating moves to Angela Merkel.Photo: © Youtube
Vanessa von Zitzewitz engaged for charitable work. “Monachrome” was published in 1999 and it was her first philanthropic venture. She published a book of black and white portraits for the benefit of the Monegasque Red Cross. Diane Kruger, Luciano Pavarotti, Monica Bellucci, Shirley Bassey, Ringo Starr and many others took part in that project. “Slaughterhouse Angels” (2008) showed an insight into the daily existence of the children in the Mercy Centre in Bangkok and is an art documentary photography book. Vanessa von Zitzewitz became a social observer and she portrayed the heartbreaking truth about the lives of the slum children, many of the children are affected by AIDS. The entire profits of the book and a photographic auction were donated to the Mercy Centre. UNESCO recognized Vanessa von Zitzewitz for this initiative.
Susanne Lettner: I’ve heard, that photographres don’t like to get photographed. Is that true?
Vanessa von Zitzewitz: Yes, you are right, but times have changed as we are all more or less obliged to pose everyday in front of a camera or an iphone… my son takes my picture constantly, so I am getting used to it!!
Susanne Lettner: What was the first thing, you have photographed?
Vanessa von Zitzewitz: My first series of black and white photos, taken with my mothers old Nikon FE, was a series of portraits in Palermo, Italy, in market. Elderly people at their fruit, vegetable, fish stands. When I developed the negatives and photos in my dark room… something magical happened. It was only a project for my Parson’s school of design photo class, but certainly triggered me to become a photographer.
Susanne Lettner: What is your favorite camera?
Vanessa von Zitzewitz: I have been ambassador for Canon, and stayed faithful to that brand, although nothing will ever replace my old Hasselblad!
Susanne Lettner: How would you describe your own style as a photographer?
Vanessa von Zitzewitz: Difficult to describe my work or my style… I only hope that I am able to translate beauty and elegance, two words which seem to have less importance in art today…
Susanne Lettner: Which photo shooting is unforgetable?
Vanessa von Zitzewitz: I have had incredible moments and experiences throughout my work for the past 20 years… my most amazing memory might be the one when I was diving underwater with the horses in Doha, Qatar, for my series of “Underwater Horses”. It was magical. I was away, physically and mentally from everything and everybody, under the water, in my adored element photographing the movements of these beautiful creatures..
Susanne Lettner: Which works did you show at your exhibition "Appearances and Aesthetics“ at Bernheimer Gallery?
Vanessa von Zitzewitz: A series of nudes and portraits, all in black and white, except for a recent project which will be in color.
Görlach: Mr Fukuyama, let me begin by asking you about your perspective on the state of the EU -how do you perceive the state of the European Union in the verge of the refugee crisis?
Fukuyama: Two weeks ago I was in Germany and had a number of discussions about the current events. Before going there, I assumed there was a well-worked out plan of doing things – and there wasn’t one, and still isn’t one. I understand why it is hard to reach a consensus on the EU level. But I don’t understand why Germany has not made public an agenda of how to deal with the situation. Ultimately, this will be bad for the EU – there is such a fundamental divide not only between Germany, but amongst European states. Add the possibility of the Brexit and you have a very difficult time ahead.
Görlach: Also the growing influence of Russia and Turkey must seem very alienating – does this seem like a cold-war era balance again? Or is it different this time?
Fukuyama: I never had any illusion that either one of these countries we’re part of the European Idea, so I don’t think it is surprising that they are behaving the way they are. Russia had this moment where they seemed to move toward European values, but this now has changed. It’s turned into a very nationalistic, almost isolated country. And in a way, Erdogan has been doing the same.
Görlach: But if Merkel comes to a plan to solve the refugee crisis, she would have to tackle the reason why people flee…
Fukuyama: …and that has started to some extent with the ceasefire. Having said that, it will take years until we really see a change in migration. Countries currently do not have the leverage to bring about peace, and even when Syria will return to peace, there are plenty of states that we have to worry about, still. The other big problem in Germany, though, is that they have taken up more refugees than they we’re able to take up, and they have a way to stop the flow into Germany.
Görlach: The idea was to disperse them across all of Europe, though!
Fukuyama: But that will not happen – the utter lack of solidarity across Europe means that everybody will provoke the right-wing backlash that ultimately will be more dangerous than the refugee crisis itself. Economically and physically, one can find places for migrants. Politically, however, Europe has not had a good track record when it came to absorbing Muslim populations into its political systems.
Görlach: But how do you tackle the moral dilemma? Europe is not only an economic entity, but in regards to human rights and the history of Christianity across the continent – to name but a few – Europe is also pretty clear on its values.
Fukuyama: It’s a matter of political realism. There are things we all want to do but we simply can’t. In the long run, costs may be undermining populist movements and splitting societies, and that won’t be worth the price to pay. Every single person I have talked to in Europe is really worried because of political problems down the road.
Görlach: What is the US’ role in this crisis? Does the American withdrawal of support to Europe seal the deal on Europe’s chaotic fate?
Fukuyama: No, I don’t think it will. Looking back, I think America could have stopped this crisis, assuming Obama had a clear policy on Syria and would have thrown Assad out of power back in 2011. The argument is that it’s an act of omission that would have avoided a crisis. But I don’t think that America is withdrawing from Europe – just think about the strong response toward the Crimean Crisis. Together, the US and Europe came up with sanctions that nobody had even thought were possible!
Görlach: Looking at the Libyan crisis, where France had its mouth wide open but needed America to follow through on threats and ultimately the intervention, do you think that Europe needs the support of the US to survive on a constitutional level?
Fukuyama: For the past 40 years US leaders have been hoping for Europe to take more responsibility and action, and in Libya, Britain and France were willing to do that. However, for Obama to retrospectively blame the British and the French for not being able to follow through with their words and ask America for help – as he did in a recent interview with The Atlantic – is also irresponsible on our part.
Görlach: It is not a secret that US and Europe have many shared values, though within Europe the British and French seem to align more with the US than the Germans and Italians do – especially in regards to the use of force. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to Washington that Europe was not united on the matter of intervening Libya.
Fukuyama: It wasn’t the use of force that was controversial – it was the nation-building aspect. In Libya, the same mistake was committed as the one in Iraq. You can’t topple an authoritarian dictator without having a solid plan of how to fill the power vacuum immediately afterwards.
Görlach: And now, with ISIS outside Tripoli, the threat to Europe has not reduced at all. To what extent is a unified worldview, such as portrayed by ISIS, a threat to societies such as our European one, which does not look into the future united?
Fukuyama: My theory was always a theory about modernization. There are outlined processes that have shown how countries have come from poverty into wealth. Karl Marx said that the endpoint of this journey is communism, and many social theorists have believed that for a century and a half. As of now, it does not look like it will be communism, but rather liberal democracies with market economies. But even in our societies, the political system and order is not perfect. Modern institutions are fragile, they are not compatible with basic traits of human nature – for example the favouring of friends and family over others. Hence, there is always a possibility that a modern state decays into an elitist oligarchy that is ruled through family connections. And one could say that this is already happening in the US as we speak.
Görlach: Obviously America has these structures – the Clinton family, the Bush family, and so on and so forth. Access to the political system is heavily weighted towards connections.
Fukuyama: But that’s not entirely true. Jeb Bush entered the race for candidacy with his last name and one hundred million dollars plus the favoritism of the American republican elite. However, the rise of Donald Trump, as obnoxious as it is, has shown that connections aren’t everything, and sadly money plays an outsized role in American politics. It undermines the legitimacy of the system, but actually what money can buy – I believe – is limited.
Görlach: Do you think that Donald Trump’s rise is a desperate attempt to re-communicate American exceptionalism to its people?
Fukuyama: No, Trump is getting his support from the middle class that is conscious about social equality in a way that was present in the 1970s – and that was a truly exceptional epoch in American history. You had a highly productive economy, relatively low inequality, a homogeneous country because immigration was cut off. It’s the hollowing of the middle class in combination with both Republican and Democrats’ failure to establish a social safety net the way we see it in Europe that is giving Trump all this support he now has.
Görlach: But then again you can argue that Europe is seeing this phenomenon too – we have, especially in central and southern Europe, rising popularity of either right- or left-wing extremist parties that have a huge nationalist youth supporting it.
Fukuyama: Except that the actual social status in America is a lot worse than in Europe. Today in America, 70% of working class children are growing up in single-parent families. There is an epidemic of drug addiction in some states – New Hampshire for example – that is very much worse than anything that is happening in Europe. Here, the Democratic party has drifted off into identity politics, environmental politics, and so on; the Republican party has actually concretely added to economic problems by their policies on immigration and free trade.
Görlach: But then, one could argue that fear is the decisive factor across both sides of the Atlantic.
Fukuyama: Yes, but that shouldn’t surprise anybody. Elites in both places have not performed too well. Here, they have allowed the erosion of manufacturing to occur, and they really mismanaged the expansion in the 2000s that contributed to the financial crisis. In Europe, the elites created the Euro, which in retrospect was not a good idea. It’s not as if Elites have been running a great cruise.
Görlach: Interesting – why the Euro as an example? Because in theory the idea of the Euro was beneficial to all of Europe.
Fukuyama: A lot of economists at the time said that if you don’t have a united fiscal policy and just unified the monetary systems, it would be a recipe for disaster, and they turned out to be correct. If Europe had a structure in which German citizens would be willing to bail out the Greek tax payers spending money that they had never really earned, then sure. Nobody would deliberately want the sequence of events that actually happened. Which doesn’t mean that the idea of Europe was a bad idea. If you look at the history of wars, you will find plenty of examples on that continent – until recently. Having a European Idea, whether or not this was a creation by elites, was good. The idea of the Euro as a shared currency, however, was not.
Görlach: How can we come up with something encouraging in Europe rather than being exposed to a rhetoric of fear and decay?
Fukuyama: There will not be a universal solution to this huge problem – you have to take one problem at a time. Figure out a way to secure the external borders, restore some of the internal controls. As far as the economy is concerned, countries themselves have very distinct objectives they want to reach. Italians want to eliminate their informal economies, the Germans are way ahead of them…
Görlach: …but in terms of narrative – as it is the 20th anniversary of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” – that is the reigning narrative now, right? At least in Europe, the struggle against Islam seems to be the case.
Fukuyama: There are ideological differences between the West and Islam. I think that we oversee some issues though. There is a fight internally in Islam between people who want a more liberal way of life, and naturally there’s an opposing side to them. Iran is a showcase example. After their return to Islamic fundamentalism after the revolution, the majority of information we receive is that Iranians really hate it and want to return to a more liberal and loose society. Now they have the opportunity to re-engage with the West. It’s not helpful to think about civilizational conflicts. We adopt new ways of thinking, generations after generations. People are trying to create dangerous narratives on both sides, be it nationalist or religious fundamentalist.
Görlach: Mr Fukuyama, thank you for your time.Photo: © Ludwig Schubert
A revolution has just begun. Education is changing, more than at any time since the introduction of the printing press and compulsory school attendance. Internet and Big Data are radically transforming how we learn, as examples from the United States, Asia and South America clearly show. This means much more than just equipping schools and universities with tablets and smartboards. The online educator Coursera is already instructing 15 million students, almost six times the number enrolled at all of Germany’s institutions of higher education. The Khan Academy’s tutoring videos have been viewed half a billion times and its founder, Salman Khan, has become the first pop star of digital learning. Last year, almost $2 billion were invested in education-technology startups. Education’s digital revolution is turning the way we teach and learn upside down. Exclusive programs for a limited few in the western world are now being replaced by courses meant for global mass consumption. One-size-fits-all instruction based on a rigid teaching plan is giving way to personalized support tailored to each learner. And the cachet of elite institutions is becoming less important than the skills students actually have at their disposal. It’s an attack – on traditional notions of who has access to education and on established networks and elites, many of whom are somewhat mistrustful and resistant. Some people have even described it as a “digital tsunami” destroying the educational ideal advanced by Wilhelm von Humboldt.
The opposite is actually true. Humboldt would have been in favor of digitization. Wanting “education for all” to serve as the basis for self-determined lives, the great 19th-century reformer created Germany’s model of compulsory education. His long-unfulfilled ideal: anyone with ability could go far, no matter where they were from. This sort of democratization is now possible. Thanks to digital tools, people who were once left behind now have access to affordable and personalized education. Aptitude is becoming more important than background or title.
Few of these trends have yet to make themselves felt in Germany, however. What is missing is the sense of urgency. Teachers complain about large, increasingly heterogeneous classes; they know little about the progress each student is making and want the freedom to provide individualized support. Unfortunately, the idea that digital learning is not an additional burden but part of the solution has yet to be embraced. According to the international comparative study ICILS, German teachers not only have less training in using computer-related technologies, they are significantly more skeptical of today’s media than their peers in 19 other countries. At the same time, few people have experience with new media; they are used less often in German classrooms than in any other country examined in the study. The situation among Germany’s universities is just as bleak. In some cases the only thing digital innovations are used for is to stream introductory courses taking place in overfilled lecture halls to students watching in nearby cinemas. Other countries once looked to Germany for effective educational reforms; today, the German educational system is in danger of losing out globally.
The country’s need to catch up is clearly visible to anyone who peruses today’s worldwide educational landscape. Four areas in particular illustrate Germany’s shortcomings – and the changes revolutionizing the world of education.
Access for everyone: Stanford in California’s Silicon Valley is considered one of the world’s best universities. Anyone studying there has it made. Yet as innovative as things might be in its tech-industry environment, Stanford’s methods of instruction remain traditional, with students learning in lecture halls and libraries. Nevertheless, in 2011 Professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig tried something previously unheard of. They suspended the elite university’s rules of exclusivity by offering the course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” not only to students on campus, but on the Internet as well – free of charge, as a MOOC, a massive open online course. More than 160,000 people from 190 countries signed up. Everyone listened to the same lectures, solved the same problem sets and took the same tests, regardless of whether they were physically present in Stanford or not. The problem sets were corrected by a computer and students discussed related questions in online fora. In the end, 23,000 students passed the final exam and received a course certificate – more than both professors could possibly have taught on campus in their entire lives. Yet what is truly revolutionary about this MOOC is not how many people took part, but where the best students came from. Of the 248 participants awarded the highest grade, not one was from Stanford. The top on-campus student placed a mere 413th on the final exam. That means that 412 people who otherwise would not have had access to the exclusive university actually did better than the carefully chosen, presumably elite students permitted to matriculate there. One of the online participants who successfully passed the course was Khadija Niazi from Lahore, Pakistan. It did not matter that she was only 11 years old when she took the final; all she needed was a computer, a high-speed Internet connection and perseverance. For her, as for many of the others, a top-level education had previously been out of reach. Today, all it takes to have free access to the world’s knowledge is a few clicks of a mouse.
Personalized learning: At David A. Boody Junior High School in Brooklyn, New York, 80 percent of the students are eligible for a free lunch since they come from low-income families. Many are immigrants; many require extensive learning support. In principle, each student needs his or her own customized teaching plan – something youngsters at Boody have been receiving for the last four years, thanks to New Classrooms. The program replaces teacher-in-front-of-the-class instruction with digital learning that matches each lesson to the student’s current level of understanding. Some 90 young people sit together in a room so large it takes up an entire floor, learning math at different workstations. Some watch videos, others use specialized learning software. Others work in groups or interact with a teacher. What is special at Boody is not how diverse the learning methods are, but the way they automatically personalize daily lessons. At the end of class, students take a short online test; that night a computer in Manhattan ascertains which students need to catch up and which method would be most helpful when they do. The result the next day is an individualized learning plan that students first see on overhead monitors when they arrive in the classroom. The technology does not replace teachers, however; it merely changes the role they play. They are no longer the fount of all knowledge, but become “learning coaches” instead. That gives them more time to engage with individual students – a change that has proven highly successful. Before New Classrooms arrived at Boody, the sixth graders there were performing slightly below average compared to their peers. These days, the New Classrooms students learn almost one-and-a-half times what students do on average in the US each year.
Getting a degree thanks to Big Data: Austin Peay State University, northwest of Nashville, Tennessee, is a small institution with big ambitions. It advises its 10,000 students the same way Amazon interacts with prospective book buyers: by providing individualized recommendations from its extensive catalogue of lectures and seminars. Degree Compass is the name of the system that compares a student’s completed coursework and prior grades with the performance of past students. It then suggests the most appropriate courses based on more than half a million data points. The software not only considers when courses are scheduled, it also knows if a student cannot attend classes on Tuesday afternoons because of a work commitment. Yet the major advantage offered by Degree Compass is its ability to forecast results: not only can it predict whether a student will do well in class, it can even reliably say what his or her final grade will be. More than 90 percent of students who follow the system’s recommendations pass the suggested course. The service is particularly useful for first-generation college students who are less likely to succeed in the university system. Degree Compass can provide guidance to those who might otherwise get lost: its algorithms point the way through the thicket of educational options, thereby reducing the risk that a student will give up and drop out.
Computer games instead of grades: “Grade point averages are worthless for hiring. We found that they don’t predict anything,” says Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google. The company’s data mining has shown that neither how a person performed at college nor the college’s reputation is important in determining how successful the individual will later be in the working world. Knack, a startup from Silicon Valley, tries to evaluate a job candidate’s skills using computer games instead. By having applicants play Dungeon Scrawl or Wasabi Waiter, the company can ascertain within 20 minutes who is suitable for a job. During a game of Wasabi Waiter, for example, candidates must serve customers in a sushi bar. The faces of the patrons display sadness, joy or anger, and the waiter has to provide each customer with the appropriate type of sushi, recognizable by small signs. The challenge, however, is that the number of guests continues to grow, as do the types of emotions. Players must decide who will be served first and who will have to wait. That allows the program to determine how players react when making decisions – when they hesitate, whether they learn from their mistakes, which priorities they set. And that provides insight into their personalities. Using algorithms, the software can then very accurately predict their prospects of professional success: based on the job description and the experiences of past employees, the Knack program identifies the qualities a candidate needs to carry out the required tasks, qualities it then compares with results from the computer game. If the findings match up, the candidate gets the job – regardless of past education or personal connections. As a result, a degree from a top-level university or a recommendation from a brand-name employer no longer guarantees a top position. In contrast to a human decision-maker, the Knack program is a neutral observer. That means people now get a chance who might never have had one before. At the same time, the situation becomes more unpredictable – for those with a conventional educational biography. The all-powerful algorithms upend old certainties: half an hour at a computer is suddenly more important for a person’s career than everything they have previously achieved.
Education for all thanks to MOOCs, personalized learning, a college counselor named Big Data and hiring decisions based on computer games instead of degrees – those are only a few of the developments revolutionizing the world around us. Social background and financial resources are no longer the keys to educational achievement and professional success. With that, Humboldt’s vision might indeed become a global reality.
Yet digital education also entails major risks: learners become exposed and leave indelible traces on the Web. Their data, moreover, can be misused. People suddenly have nowhere to hide, educational paths are determined by computer algorithms and life becomes a series of probabilities. That sounds more like Orwell’s Big Brother than Humboldt’s educational Eden. If we are to have control over our data instead of having it control us, we must create a regulatory framework that provides greater data sovereignty. After all, there’s no “stop button” for education’s digital revolution.
If a digital ecosystem is to develop in Germany, as elsewhere, and if equitable participation for all is to be more than just a pipe dream, then what educational institutions need is legal certainty when students and staff use the Internet, digital learning materials and electronic devices. What they don’t need is red tape. That means liability issues must be resolved, copyright laws must be updated and regulations determining class size and teaching loads at universities must be reduced to the lowest level possible. In other words, instructors must be able to count online courses as part of their teaching hours and thus spend less time in the classroom. Instead of prohibiting the use of mobile phones, Germany should install wireless networks in all of its schools. That would cost a few hundred million euros per year, but it would be a modest investment compared with the billions the country is spending to create all-day schools. A wide-scale “digital qualification program” for teachers is also needed. It’s not enough for individual instructors to undergo additional training; upskilling is needed for all teaching staff.
Not least, Germany’s educational system needs to become more experimental. Colleges and universities should recognize MOOCs and award academic credit to those who complete them. What is now being tested at a new online university for refugees must become the norm for all students. Germany’s leading institutes of technology, known as the TU9, could offer an online engineering degree “made in Germany” to a global market – thereby becoming a needed counterweight to the myriad US-based programs on offer. Both business and government must do their part. Initiatives and competitions that promote freely accessible learning materials send signals that are just as important as programs funding critical activities or venture capital funds designed to aid educational entrepreneurs. If the above is to be successful, Germany’s policymakers must see digitization as a chance to improve the country’s educational system. Digital transformation is not a problem, but part of the solution that can ensure educational excellence and equity.
By Jörg Dräger and Ralph Müller-Eisele
For more information: herePhoto: © Bertelsmann
Görlach: Mr. Ignatieff, perhaps it would be best if we started with a broad overview, your current perspective of what’s going on in Europe, to kick this interview off?
Ignatieff: Well, what you have the dissolution of state order in the Middle East, and Europe has to bare the consequences of that dissolution, even though Europe is not really responsible for its causes.
Görlach: What are the causes?
Ignatieff: Autocracy and despotism, which have lost their legitimacy in the Middle East since the Arab Spring and well before, stagnating societies that haven’t met the expectations of their young populations. A decade ago it was reported that these societies were simply missing the 21st century entirely, that they eventually were bound to blow, and they did. Then there was the chaotic arrogance and failure of the American intervention policy in Iraq and the failed interventions in Libya. So Europe looks at an arc that ranges from the monarchy in Morocco, the Gerontocracy in Algeria, then at the long coastline of Libya, which is essentially ungoverned, until you hit the despotic order in Egypt, and then at the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Görlach: Then the arc sweeps northeast?
Ignatieff: Correct. You’ve got Jordan, with a quarter of its population now refugees, Lebanon, unbelievably hanging together, the violent conflict in Syria, and the semi-state collapse in Iraq.
Görlach: So what do the consequences entail?
Ignatieff: The consequences are an open Mediterranean border you can’t police, surges of migration north, and a European construction of a borderless continent that may not survive until Easter. To complete the big strategic picture, you have the United States, which has been the guarantor of European security since 1945, watching this car crash like a bystander. So that’s the big picture, and I’m not alarmist because I always believe in political leadership and that solutions can be found. But right now the situation’s pretty apocalyptic.
Görlach: And to finish the arc, from the German perspective, you have Turkey and Russia.
Ignatieff: Yes, I could keep going, and I probably should, because it affects the refugee flow. The arc includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, from which you’re also getting very substantial refugee flows, because again that’s a place where western intervention has not produced stability but rather instability. So you have three cases: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya where western intervention have in fact made the problem worse. And then, to complete the arc, you’ve got from Ukraine to the Baltic the first essential challenge by the Russians since the post-1989 settlement, a Europe that has never had the military capacity to defend itself, one is ever more dependent on America to provide that strategic guarantee, and, finally, an America that has essentially a broken political system on the one hand, and is pivoting to face the Chinese threat on the other. Therefore, the United States doesn’t see the stuff we’re talking about as an urgent national security priority. So the whole picture is… kind of a new picture. It’s not the same old story at any rate.
Görlach: Does this mean that the world order we’ve known since 1990 is about to crumble? What episode in world history could you compare the current situation to?
Ignatieff: Well, I hesitate there, because you could choose apocalyptic parallels, you could choose 1914, you could choose 1945, or you could choose the religious wars in 17th century Europe. No, I think the right thing to do is to define what is particular about the here and now and not work too hard to find an historical parallel. I think what everybody is noticing is that this is crisis-upon-crisis-upon-crisis: a strategic challenge with the Russians, a refugee crisis that is both a humanitarian challenge and also a challenge to the European architecture, an economic crisis with north-south strains within Europe. The many tiers to this crisis make it so hard to deal with. In human life we solve problems never at once, but by disaggregating, by putting one thing in one pile, another thing in another pile, the “first we do this, then this” approach. And that’s obviously what Chancellor Merkel wants to do, but it’s very difficult to disaggregate here because the problems are past-dependent.
Görlach: Can you give some examples?
Ignatieff: Certainly. Example: you can’t talk to Greece about the borders because the conversations about the euro crisis have been so difficult. Everything there has been envenomed by the previous situation. It’s very difficult to talk to the British about solidarity, because they’ve got “Brexit” issues on their mind, and so on. It’s the ways in which these crises are conditioning and limiting solutions that makes this situation unprecedented. The piece of it that I’m concerned about is that I’m sitting here in the United States. I’m a Canadian who is very old-fashioned about these things. I don’t think that we would get the Europe that we have had without the continuous attention of the United States.
Görlach: What do you mean by “continuous attention”?
Ignatieff: I essentially mean a security guarantee, the Marshall Plan, Holbrooke ending the war in Bosnia. Time and time again, when Europe couldn’t solve certain problems, the United States reluctantly came in and provided basic strategic guarantees and political attention, which at this moment seems not to be present. You’re in the incredible situation where your country has taken in 1.2 million refugees in one year, while the United States has taken in 3000 since 2011.
Görlach: That definitely gives one a sense of scale, doesn’t it?
Ignatieff: You ask any American policy maker, and they’ll tell you that basically the whole refugee crisis is a European problem. The whole Schengen problem is a European problem. The part of it they think is their problem is the security of the Baltic States, Ukraine, and the Crimean peninsula. But even there they think it’s mostly a European issue!
Görlach: And what do the Americans think about Turkey?
Ignatieff: They think that Europe’s problem with Turkey is a European problem, and that really astonishes to me. For thirty years the Americans have been saying to the Europeans, “you’ve got to integrate Turkey!” Now the Europeans are desperate to get a deal with Turkey to better manage the immigration flow, don’t you think Joe Biden should be talking to Erdogan? I mean, Turkey is a NATO ally, a key strategic ally. Shouldn’t the Americans be saying, "Listen we’ve got a problem here Mr. Erdogan. You just shot down a Russian plane, and this affects vital security interests of the United States. We can’t allow this kind of shadowboxing between Berlin and Ankara to go on. We need a deal.”
Görlach: What should that deal look like?
Ignatieff: The deal has to be a refugee deal. It has to be a security deal. It has to be a visa deal that gets the Turks into Europe. It’s got to be a development deal. America is the only player with the lift to put a grand bargain together between Turkey and Europe, and it is just standing there as a bystander.
Görlach: You don’t think a deal can be reached without the Americans?
Ignatieff: It seems that way. But I don’t want my interview to contribute to the panic, “let’s-set-our-hairs-on-fire!” I think these are problems that can be solved, but I think we need to understand how big they are first.
Görlach: Well in terms of solutions, you alluded to the pre-1990 world where America had a very big stake in Europe. Should such a stance be revived?
Ignatieff: Yes, and not just through NATO, but with an engagement to sustaining the European project. Europe also has to take its responsibilities, too. But on the specific issue of how to get the Turks to help deal with the problem, the United States has already been pulling out its deployments in the Mediterranean. Europe can’t even patrol its damn borders, and so NATO is going to have to put its own assets in the Mediterranean: Canadian ships, American ships, and others too obviously. That’s an example of the ways in which the United States is playing the part of a bystander, unwillingly being dragged into the center of a conflict it would like to stay out of.
Görlach: What ought they do instead?
Ignatieff: The United States ought to be involved in a strategic play! And the strategic play has to involve: number one, stop the dying in Syria, and only the Americans can do that. Second, they need to make a grand bargain with Turkey to get the southern frontier under control. Third, they need to galvanize some European-wide approach to maritime security, so we can stop this scandal.
Görlach: What scandal do you mean specifically?
Ignatieff: The scandal of people drowning! We’ve gone back to the banalization of horror, and in fifty years we’ll look back on it with astonishment. The fact that we sat there for the whole of 2014 and 2015, in the most civilized and advanced society the world has ever known, to watch children drown. It is fixable! It makes me furious. What the hell are these bloody European militaries think they’re doing? And then when you have European politicians saying, "Well the reason we can’t do xyz is because it will give others more of an incentive to migrate.” So, Europe’s deterrence policy is to let children drown? I mean c’mon. I’m angry with the Americans for being bystanders, but I’m also angry with the Europeans for this constant, odious braying about European civilizational values. The thing that Europe has done consistently since 1945, as it has lost its geostrategic power, is to say that is has gained "cultural and civilizational power.” Well, whatever the European values are supposed to be about, they don’t involve letting helpless children die in the waters in front of your borders. And it’s that nauseating combination of a quarreling incapacity to fix things, and the high-minded moral vocabulary being used, that has got to stop!
Görlach: Recently there was an article in a German newspaper, claiming that one of the United States’ biggest contributions to post-war Europe was its sense of constitutionalism. There’s a constitution that must be adhered to, and I think that holds true to a very large extent also in Germany, where all the (reasonable) political parties argue that immigrants have to respect our constitution. I think that’s very American of us.
Ignatieff: The constitutional point is very important, because you can’t have integration and assimilation unless there is a constitutional bargain. We say yes to you, and you say yes to us. And the “yes” that you’re saying is a yes the constitution. The “yes”¬–which Germany has every right to insist upon–is that if you come to Germany, you sign on to the constitutional order of the society. That means the equality of men and women. Equality before the law. Due process. Non-violence. All that good stuff. The idea that Cologne was an encounter between an alien Muslim culture and Germany is false. What Cologne was, was a breakdown of law and order. The contract is very clear. People who break the law should be punished. People who do not respect women in public or in private should be punished. The deal of constitutional liberalism is perfectly clear.
Görlach: On the other hand, I’ve been speaking to Noam Chomsky, and he thinks that because European societies have been very homogeneous over the centuries, they are more racist than many others.
Ignatieff: I respectfully disagree with Noam Chomsky. He of all people should know that European societies were quite multicultural until Stalin and Hitler “went to work”. Eastern Europe was the original multicultural society, if nothing else because of its large Jewish populations. So this mono-ethnicity problem is the creation of genocide. That’s fact number one. Fact number two: all you have to do is go to a Mosque in Sarajevo to understand that Islam has been part of Europe since the 15th century. Number three: look at Britain since the 1950s. It has become a multi-cultural society as fast and as successfully as anywhere else on earth. Just walk around London. Go to Hamburg. Go to Berlin. The idea that we have a multicultural North America and a mono-cultural Europe is a stereotype that does us no good at all, and actually plays into arguments of Europe’s right wing groups. It’s just false.
Görlach: That’s a great point.
Ignatieff: My course assistant at the Kennedy School is a German who is Turkish. She’s German alllll the way down. She happens to be ethnically Turkish, but there is not a more German person. Your society has actually done a fabulous job in slowly transforming from what it was in 1945 to what it is today. Let’s just lay those stereotypes aside, because they only serve the forces of division.
Görlach: What more can the German Chancellor do?
Ignatieff: First, she must make the refugees aware of the constitutional order of Germany, that “yes” they must give before entering. Once that happens, integration can work. The second thing: politically, no liberal society can work without control of its borders. You can’t run a society and maintain cohesion and political order without control of your borders. Chancellor Merkel’s future is not long unless she can say to the German people, not “wir schaffen das,” but rather "we have this under control, we know who is coming in, our border police know what is happening, and the integration process is proceeding.” As long as it is not in order, the right wing forces will gain ground.
Görlach: Is creating this order possible?
Ignatieff: There are lots of people walking around Europe with plenty of good ideas. One of those ideas might be to say, “Germany will take 250,000 people a year as long as this crisis goes on. But we will only take them from Turkey, or Jordan, or Lebanon. And we will repatriate them directly to Frankfurt or Munich or whereever, and we will do so on an orderly basis, and we will do the pre-security screening in those countries, and if you don’t make the screening then you don’t come in. But if you do, then we will take you in.” That will require cooperation with Turkey. That would be the most effective thing I can think of to end this obscenity of death in the Aegean Sea. Germans I think are willing to do the right thing here. But there’s a limit for any society. So what is infuriating about this situation is not that there aren’t solutions–there are solutions—but that there is no European-wide solution.
Görlach: And why is that?
Ignatieff: The eastern members won’t take anybody. The Brits will take who they want, but they will take them directly from the camps. The French have their own problems after Paris, and Italy is leaking and can’t take anymore. So it is up to Germany. But Germany has every right to say “look, we’ve made a historic humanitarian gesture, which expresses the best things about us. There are limits to what we can do, and here is what we’re prepared to do down the road: 250,000 people, directly repatriated from Turkey each year.”
Görlach: And what will that do?
Ignatieff: That will give you some way to reconcile the constitutional obligations that Germany has, the “dignity” commitments it made in its ‘48 constitution, and at the same time it will send a clear signal to the German society that we have to get this under control. I was in a Bavarian resettlement camp in October. Nice Bavarian women, who–and I can’t praise them highly enough–were processing 1500 people a day, and doing a fantastic job! Germany should be incredibly proud of these women. But they were saying to me, " I don’t know how long we can do this." And it wasn’t a matter of principle. Politicians have to acknowledge and listen to these wonderful Bavarian women, who are, in my view, the real heroes of the story.
Görlach: What happens if we don’t get this under control?
Ignatieff: One of the key moments in this crisis was the closing of the Swedish-Danish bridge. Everybody suddenly woke up and thought, “We just got rid of Schengen.” And the knock-on effects of losing Schengen, plus the moral impact of the reinstitution of border controls, will be catastrophic for particularly your generation, which grew up thinking, “I’m a citizen of Europe.” Well, not anymore. That’s why it’s so urgent to get this fixed now, and it can be. You can have Schengen provided you have external control of the borders, and you can have Schengen if you put limits on the number of people you repatriate. You can have Schengen and a European project if you say “we’ll take 250,000 from Turkey,” and then you get it under control now!
Görlach: Is there anything else?
Ignatieff: Yes, the final element of a decent policy is repatriation. One of the dilemmas in the German situation is you’re taking in huge numbers of people, and about 50% of the time they are not meeting the standards of admission. And yet these people are not being sent home. You’ve got to start putting people on planes and sending them back to Kosovo, to Nigeria, to where ever. The quid pro quo of this policy, of a generous policy–¬¬¬and 250,000 people a year is a generous policy–is we have to send people home. That’s tough for Germany. It’s tough for any country. But you put all of this together and you’ve got a policy that will allow the European Project to survive. If you don’t get this together pretty quickly, it’s going to be too late.
Görlach: But how can you morally justify putting Syrians on a plane home while Russia is bombing the whole country into pieces? We in Europe don’t know what to do about the Russians. Being of Russian descent yourself, maybe you can offer some insight into how Europe can be more up front about this aspect of the crisis?
Ignatieff: I began by saying that Europe can’t deal with the causes of the refugee flow; it can only suffer the consequences. And the causes of the refugee flow now are the Syrian and Russian encirclement of Aleppo, which is directly causing a flow of people west as we speak. The only thing that can stop this is, again, the United States.
Görlach: What can the United States do about the Russian offensive?
Ignatieff: They can say to the Russians, calmly, quietly, without any desire to escalate, “You can’t do this. You can’t encircle a city. You can’t cut it off from humanitarian resupply. And you can’t starve it. You can’t lob shells indiscriminately, while there are 300,000 people in there. And if you continue to do it, we’ll shoot down one of your planes.” This is risky and difficult, because nobody wants it to escalate into a confrontation. I certainly don’t. We’re in hourly contact with the Russians already, over the aircrafts that are already in the airspace. Lavrov and Kerry are in hourly conversation about everything else. I don’t see why you can’t say to the Russians, “We have one mission here and it is not a regime change. It is not seeking military confrontation with you. It is to ensure the humanitarian resupply of Aleppo and the prevention of further civilian harm. That is why we are putting aircrafts into the sky, and you have to understand that this is a military gesture on our part to prevent you from winning the war on your terms.” Once you do that, I don’t believe the Russians have any desire to go down that road either. Then you would have created the preconditions to go back to Vienna or Geneva or where ever and negotiate a longer-lasting ceasefire. But my view is you can’t get a ceasefire that will last unless the Americans put on the table the only language the Russians understand: the language of military force. And they are the only ones that can do it. There are risks, and I’m aware of them, and the last thing I want is this situation to escalate out of control. But the alternative is that Russia and Assad will encircle, starve, and crush Aleppo, and win their war. The refugee flow that will follow will be on another level. And geo-strategically speaking, the idea of an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran-Russian-Rumpstate in the center of the Middle East strikes me as not being in the national interest of anybody, except maybe them.
Görlach: So that is where we are. Thank you Mr. Ignatieff
Ignatieff: That is where we are. And that is why the European crisis has to include an American commitment, because the Germans can’t enforce a no-fly zone over Aleppo. There’s only one country that can.
To the contrary: When she addressed the assembled delegates of her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) only days before Christmas, she delivered an uncharacteristically passionate plea in defence of her decision to suspend the Schengen Agreement and open the country’s borders to over a million refugees. Heiner Geißler, a party grandee and former cabinet minister, lauded her speech as the “best she had ever given”. Many journalists and close observers detect how Merkel finally committed to a cause that could define her chancellorship, while the phalanx of detractors take to the internet or the streets to whoop up speculation about her imminent resignation. Yet, far and wide there is no potential challenger among the ranks of the Christian Democrats.
However, against a background of growing public protest against Merkel’s migration policy and sliding poll ratings for her party, the question is perhaps not so much, if she is willed to go on. Instead, it will come down to the electorate if she is granted another term. And, though surprisingly perhaps, it appears there are solid reasons for an upbeat forecast that sees the CDU snatch a regional premiership or two in this year’s state ballots scheduled for March and anticipate Merkel’s fourth consecutive triumph in the 2017 general elections. While the party seems on course to lose a good number of seats in the Bundestag, another four years at the helm for Mrs. Merkel is still no unlikely prospect. The rationale underlying these sanguine predictions are predicated on basic principles of electoral arithmetic and political positioning which campaign managers of all parties in Berlin are keenly aware of.
The CDU’s strategists have always been striving for electoral outcomes that put their party well ahead in the race to ensure political rivals would not muster the numbers needed to form a coalition. Traditionally, Christian Democrats have trawled voters on the right and centre, while their main competitors, the Social Democrats (SPD), cater for voters leaning towards the left. Every government since the late 1940s coalesced around one or the other of these two major parties. Without the involvement of either, the minor political groupings lack electoral support to hammer out a parliamentary majority. Against this background the CDU’s primary objective becomes evident. Clinging on to government is assured only if the SPD’s numbers on election day are effectively kept down. Ever since Merkel took over government in 2005 this goal has been met. Indeed, for more than a decade now the Social Democrat’s poll ratings seem to be mired in the doldrums of the mid 20s, whilst the CDU’s electoral fortunes were boosted by rock solid support from well above 40 per cent of the voting age population. Hence after each of the elections in 2005, 2009 and 2013 there was no alternative to a coalition sustained by the CDU that confirmed Angela Merkel as chancellor, whose future in the job over the coming months hinges mainly on the continued weakness of her Social Democratic rivals.
Those who predict Merkel’s chancellorship may be truncated by a disenchanted electorate in next year’s general elections, are oblivious to the basic rules of political positioning and an evident ideological pincer movement the SPD finds itself squeezed by. It appears that the refugee crisis and CDU strategists’ response to it, sap the Social Democrats’ popular support and cause them more harm than the spiralling number of refugees and an exacerbated populace could possibly do to the CDU’s electoral prospects. The rationale for this prediction is grounded in a blend of party political ideology and modern history: Germany’s political left has traditionally entertained an uneasy relationship with notions of national identity and patriotic pride. Not surprisingly, the concept of the nation is viewed suspiciously and considered the potential source of nationalism which – it has been repeatedly argued by left wing intellectuals – is to be blamed for the pestilence that caught on with Germans and ended in an unhealthy frenzy that twice in a century led to world wars. The traumatic experience taught Germany’s ideological left two lessons that define their creed: Firstly, their country is morally obliged to redeem its historical guilt by offering unconditionally and without grimacing a home to anyone who is suffering from war and oppression – no if, no but and certainly no cap on numbers. Secondly, national sentiments and German patriotism need to be overcome. Last autumn the Green politician Stefanie von Berg, in a speech she delivered in Hamburg’s regional parliament, welcomed her country’s evolution into a “transcultural society” devoid of a single predominant ethnic group. “And that is good”, she succinctly concluded her remarks that encapsulated a widespread view held among the German left who believe that a wave of refugees will be instrumental in making strides towards attaining their goal and overcome a national identity that has never been a force for good.
Prior to the arrival of the Greens in the 1980s and Die Linke more recently, the Social Democrats for a century defined themselves as the traditional home to the left, whose stance on international solidarity and support for the victims of war and oppression should have aided the SPD’s electoral fortunes amid a wave of sympathy a majority of Germans publicly pronounced toward refugees as migrant numbers soared in 2015. But the hopes of party managers were soon dashed as the polls kept hovering in the low 20s, while Merkel’s open border policy hijacks the political left’s agenda and poaches their supporters.
The Social Democratic leaders and long-standing advocates of campaigns for a liberal refugee and migration policy noticed with chagrin that Merkel’s unswerving insistence to offer a “friendly face” to refugees in need of a safe haven, have propelled the CDU’s chancellor well onto ideological territory the SPD’s officials for decades thought of as their own. The implications were disconcerting for the SPD leadership: By the time the daily intake of refugees had peaked at 10.000, a poll by Forsa evidenced that a third of Social Democrats preferred Merkel over their own party leader. The ability to win over large swaths of voters who for years had been committed to one’s fiercest rivals is a rare talent the CDU’s leader has always been attested a knack for.
This feat is all the more astounding as the CDU’s leaders over many years had accrued a reputation for their views on migration and refugee policies which struck a more popular chord with the political right. In 1999 a bill introduced by the Social Democrat’s then chancellor Gerhard Schröder meant to entitle foreigners resident in Germany to double citizenship. The CDU’s response was a resolute campaign asking voters to sign a petition intended to derail the government’s initiative. In doing so Christian Democrats tacitly accepted support by many who merely sought to vent their resentment against foreigners. Helmut Kohl, who led the CDU and headed government for much of the 1980s and 1990s, had his party executive mull over plans aimed at expediting the return of Turks to their home country. At the same time, the CDU had earned particular credibility on matters related to law and order with pledges to ramp up funding for the judiciary and the police as well as promises for new and tightened legislation to counter crime. Today Christian Democrats preparing for regional elections in March hope to capitalise on these credentials which stand their party in good stead amid an increasingly nervous public discourse on the appropriate response to crimes allegedly committed by asylum seekers and migrants whose integration into civic society over years has been marred by failure. As the balance of popular sentiment incrementally tips in favour of restrictive policies, more eyes will turn to the CDU reminiscent of the party’s long held commitment to clamping down on offenders and staving off mass migration in an effort to balance legitimate national interests with the unquestioned humanitarian obligation to help refugees.
Opponents of mass migration today have an alternative to voting CDU. The aptly named Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, has positioned itself as a staunchly far-right outfit that is fishing both for disgruntled conservative voters and sympathisers of more extremist views. A combination of Merkel’s perceived liberal leanings and the fallout of the refugee crisis are regarded by senior AfD figures an electoral godsend. Indeed, the AfD has enjoyed bumper months and opinion polls see the party at around 12 per cent on an upward trend. Much of it to the detriment of the CDU, but reports suggest that trade union rank and file are not immune to the AfD’s lure either which indicates that voters from across the entire political range are susceptible to the far-right’s siren calls. As the party is undergoing an alarming radicalisation – only this weekend its deputy leader suggested border guards may have to shoot at refugees regardless of age or gender to prevent them from illegally crossing the border – chances for further growth appears slim as the vast majority of German voters have traditionally been little inclined to flock to parties ready to espouse extremist positions. What may also hold their rise is its unseemly association with the xenophobic Pegida movement that has made the AfD’s brand toxic and its leaders pariah, whose presence in TV talk shows and on debate panels is shunned by politicians across the board. Still, in a general election the AfD could well end up with 12 or perhaps even15 per cent of parliamentarians. If they are left out in the cold, the role of the largest party as lynchpin of any coalition government remains intact and is if anything even strengthened: While after the 2017 election the combined force of SPD, Green and Die Linke may outnumber a much clobbered group of Christian Democrats in the Bundestag, the tally will only add up if an alliance of left-wing parties outnumbers lawmakers of both the Christian Democrats and the AfD. Yet, as long as the former hold their ground, whilst the latter go from strength to strength this scenario seems somewhat unlikely, in which case a government would need to involve the only party whose numbers in a coalition with the SPD or the Greens can deliver a majority in the Bundestag. Factoring in current rather underwhelming poll ratings, it appears this party will still be Mrs. Merkel’s CDU.
Since demands have grown for a much more restrictive migration policy following the incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, the Social Democrats find themselves confronted with public sentiments they are ideologically ill positioned to respond to with credibility. Not surprisingly, the Social Democrat’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel, is said to feel daunted by the thought of leading his party into next year’s general election as the polls see the Christian Democrats at 35 per cent, seven points down since last summer, but still ahead by a wide margin. In spite of ever more vocal doomsayers we may therefore still witness the chancellor race to her fourth consecutive election victory in 2017, if the CDU’s strategists play their cards well and emphasise their party’s credibility in response both to a humanitarian crisis on an epic scale and the more alarming domestic fallout of mass migration. The recipe of success will be a political pincer movement: Whilst Angela Merkel continues to champion the cause of migrants, left wing voters can’t help but admire her tenacity and readiness to face down a barrage of narrow-minded criticism. Yet, if refugees are to feature more prominently in Germany’s crime statistics, worried voters may arguably favour the CDU over its Social Democratic rivals, whose credentials for law and order and wholesale expulsion of foreign delinquents are less impressive. It appears electoral arithmetic and the astute positioning of the party brand are the recipe to keep the CDU in government and Merkel in the job well beyond next elections in 2017.Photo: © Bundesregierung
1. Do you use the internet – professionally or personally?
2. Do you own a smartphone?
3. Which of the following online services do you use? Reading the paper? E-banking? Shopping at Amazon? Ordering food to be delivered to you? Google Maps? Ordering a cab? Car sharing? Streaming music, series or videos? Booking your travel? Submitting your tax statement online?
4. Do you have a Facebook or LinkedIn profile? Do you use Twitter?
5. How does Google know how to tailor hits specifically to your needs?
6. At which rate (Mbit/s) are you able to receive data at home? And at which rate do you receive data on your smartphone when you are on the move?
7. What would I know about you if I was able to take a look at all of your digital profiles and your entire digital footprint?
8. Is it true when columnists at the German weekly SPIEGEL write that mobile internet use is up to 5000 per cent more expansive in Germany than in Finland?
9. Do you have an idea of what one can learn about you by retaining data for six months? If not, take a look at the brilliant work by the politician Malte Spitz and the German weekly ZEIT (Only in German available, but click on the play-button and see what happens…)
10. Do you think the protection of digital data is the civil liberty of the 21st century?
11. Do you learn online?
12. What is a Massive Open Online Course – a MOOC ?
13. Do you have children who already learn online, e.g. using platforms such as Khan Academy or math courses by Bettermarks?
14. Are you a student who has also registered for courses offered at the online university Udacity by Sebastian Thrun in addition to attending your lectures?
15. Why is it that a German like Sebastian Thrun is revolutionising education from California, not from Berlin or Munich?
16. Are you a teacher or professor and wonder which influence digitalisation will have on your work in the education sector?
17. Or are you an education manager in a private company and think of strategies to foster digital competences of your employees?
18. Do you work in journalism and have already experienced the business model of an entire sector collapsing due to digitalisation as people only read online papers and do no longer pay for it?
19. Do you know a Social Media Manager, a Mobile Developer or a Data Analyst? What do they do?
20. Do you feel for special agents who get laid off because they are no longer needed to open other people’s letters or observe others as this can now be done so much more efficiently online?
21. Did it put your mind at ease when, two years ago, during his NSA speech, Barack Obama declared that the US would limit its wiretapping to two hops of the suspect number instead of three?
22. Do you wish for an Edward Snowden of the British GHCQ, the German BND or the French DGSE?
23. Do you think the “Safe Harbour” judgement passed by the Court of Justice of the European Union, according to which the protection of personal data from Europe in the USA is inadequate, is right?
24. Are you one of the thousand employees, entrepreneurs, lawyers or data protection officers in the European Union who now have to ensure that the judgement is implemented?
25. Should a court order be necessary for the digital surveillance of potential Islamist attackers or not?
26. What level of technical skills should the people have who are in command of the parliamentary control of our intelligence agencies?
27. Do you think the intelligence agencies within the European Union are currently subject to adequate parliamentary control?
28. Are you satisfied with the online services and e-government campaigns launched by your municipal, regional, national or European authorities?
29. Do you use the live traffic map offered by Google Maps because it is usually more accurate than the traffic alert of your car’s navigation device?
30. When will machines be interconnected to such a degree that they will continuously communicate with each other so that, for example, cars will automatically help reduce the probability of congestions?
31. Have cars become big driving computers and have European car manufacturers turned into software companies?
32. Are we currently experiencing the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0? What does it mean?
33. Are you interested in a car insurance which becomes cheaper as you drive in an exemplary manner?
34. Do you consider conveying data on your healthy way of life to your health insurance so that you can benefit from a lower insurance contribution?
35. Which data about you is stored on the chip of your health insurance card?
36. Do you think that the European Union has enough competence, venture capital and entrepreneurial spirit to provide for flourishing start-up businesses dealing with the most important commodity of the 21st century – data?
37. Should all online data be treated equally in the European Union (network neutrality)? Or would you prefer certain data to be given priority for societal reasons (e.g. telemedicine)? Or even simply at a surcharge?
38. Do you think that the internet infrastructure in the European Union is being developed quickly enough?
39. Are you a British national and believe you should leave the European Union because Britain will be much better able to master these enormous changes of the 21st century alone?
40. Under which conditions would the 430 million citizens of continental Europe allow 65 million British people to access their digital single market after the latter have left the Union? Would the conditions be better? Would they be equally good? Or worse than today?
41. Are you a Norwegian or Swiss citizen and wonder whether the European Union’s laws on digitalisation also have an effect on you even though you have no political say in them?
42. Do you think it is fair that the Hungarian government does not sufficiently respect the values laid down in Article 2 of the Treaty and at the same time Hungary receives one of the highest net amounts per capita in the Union and is, thus, better able to master the challenges presented by digitalisation than other states which do not receive such net payments from the Union?
43. Do you think the Polish party which calls itself “Law and Justice” and which attacked over Christmas the independence of the Polish constitutional court and is going to minimize pluralism in the Polish press and art – do you think that these people have the right answers to digitalisation in Poland?
44. Would you approve a forceful programme, launched by the European Union and its member states, to provide the young unemployed, especially in Greece, Spain and Italy, with new opportunities of e-learning?
45. Have you recently seen the movie “Democracy” starring MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht as negotiator of the new data protection directive at the European Parliament? And do you now have a better understanding of how complex European law-making can be?
46. Is “more Europe” in terms of a single consistent data protection regulation better than a patchwork of 28 different regulations at national level?
47. Do you think that the period of seven years from the draft proposal by the European Commission to the coming into effect of the new data protection directive is adequate in today’s era of digitalisation¬¬?
48. Is it biased of the President of the European Commission to merely talk about creating a digital single market?
49. Do you consider digitalisation a chance or a risk?
50. Are you interested to know which strategy the European Union and its member states pursue in terms of the Digital Revolution and which laws are in the pipeline in this context?Photo: © Fotolia
After the newly elected Polish government and president attacked the separation of powers in Poland during Christmas season, every citizen of the European Union is faced with two questions. Firstly: Do I want this new Polish government to keep its right to vote on my European matters in the Council of the European Union? Secondly: Do I want this new Polish government to continue to receive the highest net amount of EU net payments, which means European tax payers’ money?
On the first question: During their next meeting on January 13, the European Commission will deal with the situation in Poland. It is likely to activate the early warning mechanism, if it does not want to loose its own credibility for the protection of the rule of law in the European Union. The Polish government would be given a formal notice concerning the adherence to rule of law principles. Of course, this will not be the end of it. The Polish government will have to make a statement; it will probably not want to back down. In consequence, the Commission would – after a public justifying statement analysing the matter – be able to recommend changes to or the rescission of the laws on the Polish constitutional court and the media. Such a request would have to have a deadline. If the Polish government remains obstinate and ignores the recommendations, the Council would be able to determine that there is “a clear risk of a serious breach” of the values referred to in Article 2, such as freedom, democracy, rule of law and pluralism. For this statement it would need 22 out of 27 member state votes, only 27 members because Poland itself would not be eligible to vote. If the Polish government still didn’t come to its senses, the European Council would be able to unanimously determine the existence of “a serious and persistent breach” of the European values. This is, however, very unlikely as Mr Orban from Hungary would have to agree. Nevertheless, even if no unanimous decision is reached in the end: the European Union – having not achieved a satisfactory reaction by the Polish government in prior – would make a clear statement about its values and identity. And if – after all these steps – Hungary would be the only country to negate the existence of “a serious and persistent breach” of the values, this would imply the question whether the Hungarian government itself finally qualifies for its own procedure under Article 7. At the same time, the pressure to carry out reforms for a Union, which is capable to act politically much better, would increase. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Either way, it is time for the European Union to decide whether it want to be recognized by the people with a clear profile or if it just want to continue to muddle through as in the past. The Union should not shy away from taking the procedure to a vote in the European Council and it should be willing to take it even through to the complete suspension of voting rights of the new Polish government. In 2019, the Polish people would have the next possibility to elect a new government, which could then receive a renewed right to vote in the Council.
According to the European Commission, Poland received a net amount of almost 14 billion euros in European tax payers’ money in 2014. So, in terms of absolute figures, Poland was the major net beneficiary of the European Union by far. It was followed by Hungary, which received 5.7 billion euros in 2014. That means that Hungary received the highest net amount per capita throughout the Union. This situation is completely absurd; those governments, which violate the values laid down in Article 2, receive most funding for their people from Brussels. At the same time, Europe is faced with the refugee crisis and millions of unemployed young people in Greece, Italy and Spain. And 2014 was by no means an exception. In the past, the figures for Poland and Hungary were similar and the planning of the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2014-2020 points in the same direction. Under the current Multiannual Financial Framework, Poland alone is supposed to receive a record sum of around 75 billion euros. Let us compare: With a Polish gross domestic product of 413 billion euros in 2014, net payments of 14 billion euros amount to about 3.4 percent of GDP. If Germany had received such a percentage in 2014, it wouldn’t have had to make net payments in the amount of 15.5 billion, but receive a net amount of about 99 billion euros from Brussels.
Now, what can be done against the new Polish government attacking the separation of power and fundamental values of the European Union while even benefiting from European tax payers? Firstly, all and any payments made to Poland by the European Union must be reviewed immediately. This directly concerns all payments during the financial year 2016 of the EU. Secondly, the behaviour by the Polish government needs to play a pivotal role during the review of the Multiannual Financial Framework at the end of 2016. And thirdly, its behaviour consistently has to be taken into consideration regarding the new Financial Framework for 2021-2028, for which the European Commission has to submit a first draft by the end of the coming year.
The year 2016 will be the decisive year for the European Union. If the EU does not succeed in effectively defending its values referred to in Article 2 and in developing a clear profile recognized by its citizens, its days will be numbered. This is true not only with a view to the violation of such values in Poland and Hungary but also regarding the solution to the refugee issue which continues to be absolutely deficient. It also holds true for the Greek ability to implement reforms as well as a potential Finnish withdrawal from the Euro zone and a possible Brexit. To be clear: the failure of the European Union would be a disaster for all of its 500 million citizens – for each and every one of them!Photo: © Fotolia