Well, so much for the resolution to blog more regularly – I think that has as much chance of success as the one about cutting down on self-medication for stress with cake and gin. A partial explanation for this failure is that, as someone who is engaged with political issues and occasionally comments on them (albeit almost invariably through the prism of Thucydides), not to blog about issues of freedom of speech and Islam, despite my obvious lack of expertise on either of those topics, has felt problematic over the last week and a half. This has been one of those times where silence feels like complicity, but speaking out in a way that remains true to the complexity of things, rather than just loudly picking a side and damning the consequences, feels equally risky. There was a great deal of truth in the Twitter snark that Charlie Hebdo was overtaking Thomas Piketty as the French thing Anglophone commentators were writing the most words about without having read; and I was also reminded of the aftermath of 9/11 and the furious reaction to Mary Beard’s attempt at providing a bit of nuance. And yet I still felt the pull to say something, or at least a reluctance to blog about anything else for a bit.
I felt rather sorry for at least some professional commentators, who weren’t really given the option of staying silent (of course it’s clear that plenty of others wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment). I have read some excellent pieces, some offering context, some analysis and some a more personal response – and this has been an occasion where the brevity and punchiness of Twitter – the # hashtag aside (thanks to @chrisbrooke for that one) – has definitely lost out to the subtleties of longer-form, multi-layered commentary. On the whole, though, I think that Jedediah Purdey put it best in ‘The Dangers of Clarity’ (thanks to David Grewal for the link); it’s a thoroughly human reaction to try to reduce these and other terrible events to something comprehensible, even at the expense of complexity, but sometimes it’s better and more appropriate to refuse this temptation.
So, at least for the moment, I’m going to limit my contribution on this theme to a couple of fragmentary comments, with no proper sense – let alone a coherent case – of what they might say about the whole. The first relates to the German Pegida movement – which I was planning to write anyway before the Paris murders. While in Germany over Christmas and the New Year I was encouraged by the response of German politicians to the growing demonstrations in Dresden and (to a much smaller degree) other cities, with Angela Merkel expressly warning against the undercurrent of hate and suspicion motivating the crowds. It’s all too easy to imagine that in similar circumstances, at least before the murders in Paris, British politicians from all the mainstream parties would in contrast have been lining up to express sympathy with the very real concerns of ordinary hard-working people who blame everything on foreigners.
I’m fascinated by the ideological work going on in the name ‘Pegida’ – which to a large extent is aimed at disguising the hardcore racist element and toxic Nazi associations within its organisation in order to win over (and/or provide cover for) a much broader spectrum of the generally discontented and angry. Compare and contrast with the name ‘UKIP’, which almost does what it says on the tin apart from the claim to represent the UK rather than mostly the English. Patriotic Europeans Against The Islamisation of the West; not Germans concerned about Germany and so not nationalist in any crude old-fashioned sense, but heirs of the great European cultural tradition that harks back to classical antiquity. Echoes not only of Spengler but also the ill-fated draft European constitution, which was undermined in part by arguments over whether the Christian tradition should be put at heart of European identity. Maybe they should have stuck with the Thucydides quote (“our constitution is called a democracy”) so roundly mocked in the UK parliament (see Liz Sawyer’s chapter in the appearing-imminently Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides, edited by Lee and Morley). This disavowal of nationalism is somewhat undercut now by the appropriation of the specifically German rallying cry from 1989, “Wir sind das Volk”, but we can never expect ideological coherence from this sort of enterprise.
And then there’s the term ‘Islamisation’ which of course means anything remotely connected to Muslims and Islam that ‘we’ don’t like. The claim is that society is being taken over and culture undermined by alien values, from the serving of halal meat in McDonalds without a big “Special Food for Animal-Torturing Foreigners” label to, of course, the idea that Islam is given a special status when it comes to whether people are allowed to say what they think about others. This seems to be a quite different set of fears from the better-grounded concern that small numbers of fanatics are plotting violent acts against a society and culture that they regard as utterly alien and hostile to their own values – but again, there’s not a lot of point in hoping for intellectual coherence here. This attitude feeds from and feeds into an all-embracing hostility towards Muslims, as a vast conspiracy that is simultaneously taking over society from within and plotting its violent overthrow – the tropes of twentieth-century anti-semitism being recycled for a new target.
My second thought relates to the one comment piece that really annoyed the hell out of me, Slavoj Zizek’s ‘Are the Worst Really Full of Passionate Intensity?’. Yes, I know he only does it to annoy because he knows it teases, but still… Zizek starts by setting up a dramatic contrast in Nietzschean terms between the ‘last men’ of a decaying Europe, apathetic creatures dedicated to lives of material comfort, and the passionate, committed fundamentalists dedicated to the defeat of this decadent, wishy-washy civilisation – not an argument that I actually recall anyone making – and then asserting that really these are two sides of the same coin, locked in a self-destructive embrace, and the only people capable of rising above this are those of the New Left. Liberalism will fail because it’s too liberal and still believes in democracy, tolerance and the like; fundamentalism will fail because the fundamentalists are not fundamentalist enough, lacking the absolute conviction in their rightness of certain Slovenian philosophers.
To think in response to the Paris killings means to drop the smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal and to accept that the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle of two poles generating and presupposing each other. What Max Horkheimer had said about Fascism and capitalism already back in 1930s – those who do not want to talk critically about capitalism should also keep quiet about Fascism – should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.
What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action… Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect… If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition.
Easy to read this as an analysis of the fanaticism of those who plot to kill cartoonists, Jewish shoppers and schoolchildren, policeman and off-duty soldiers – but equally applicable to some of the demands of the self-appointed defenders of freedom of speech and western values, and of course the marchers of Pegida. What is most disturbing about this parallel is that Thucydides shows us clearly how fragile social unity and stability are – without offering any clear advice on what to do when things start to fall apart.