Saturday, February 02, 2019

HT Alan Jacobs--Guardian letter on the wreckers of real European civilization ... Europe-as-post-history-order or the actual mess of Europe?

To the authors and signatories of this letter I have one thing to say: “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.”

Said letter includes ... :
This is the noxious climate in which Europe’s parliamentary elections will take place in May. Unless something changes; unless something comes along to turn back the rising, swelling, insistent tide; unless a new spirit of resistance emerges, these elections promise to be the most calamitous that we have known. They will give a victory to the wreckers. For those who still believe in the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius there will be only ignominious defeat. A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism. Disaster will have befallen us.

Fight to protect "Europe"? What kind of Europe? The European Union as a geo-political force?  Decades ago I can recall Christian relatives who were fairly confident the European Union was going to be where the Beast would arise and the Antichrist.  The possibility that the United States could be the Beast of our age was completely off the table ... at least until a non-white President got elected but that's probably a topic for some other, separate post.  I grew up in the sort of Pentecostal context in which it could be theorized that the European Union "might" be the terrible world power predicted in the book of Revelation based on dispensationalist prophecy industry.  When I learned how much of a mess the EU's approach to policy and collaboration actually was in the roll up to the "end of history" I began to get the sense that the EU will never arrive at a United States of America moment.  It can't and it won't.  The capacity of the West to lead the "free world" is at the behest of nuclear superpower activity, which would be "us", the US. 

And ... how many formerly Warsaw Pact countries joined NATO would be useful to remember.  It's not that I think Putin isn't a very bad guy, it's that the Atlantic power base of the post-World War II Amero-European alliance can get presented as being in peril and ... well ... what happened to Fukuyama's "end of history"?  Didn't the Balkans suggest during the 1990s that history wasn't even remotely ended?  Or were people ignoring the eruption of conflict in the former Yugoslavia as not ultimately suggesting the possibility of a fully unified European political/economic super-power was not even, really, possible?  The great nations of Europe, together, could not be together enough to become a kind of United States of America.  I don't know that I'd say Europe was in danger of destroying itself so much as European powers ruined their empires by fighting wars about whose imperialism was better justified. 

One of the things that's been gnawing at me since 2016 is I have read descriptions of how nationalism and populism are destroying democracy.  That democratic processes of governance can lean toward populist and nationalist causes wouldn't seem like a shock, the sort of shock it seems to be in at least some coverage.  That populist and nationalist impulses can play out in racist, xenophobic ways isn't even really a shock.

Maybe the shock is that the myth of "Europe" is taken seriously by the type of European intelligentsia most able to benefit from that conception of Europe to the point that it is actually treated as though it "is" Europe.  There is a Europe, and an America for that matter, that is a construction of journalistic and academic activity which may not coincide with the flesh and blood people who do or don't vote as hoped for. The puzzle isn't that populist and nationalist impulses can play out in what is thought of as a "righwing" turn.

The puzzle is that now, so to speak, journalists treat democratic expressions of populism and nationalism as fundamentally anti-democratic.  For that to be possible there has to be a definition of "democratic" in which a democratic procedural outcome does not fit an ideological definition of what real democracy is expected to be; by extension, for nationalism and populism to be anti "Europe" there has to be a particular definition of Europe in mind. 

Just as there can be a myth of "Europe" there can be a myth of a certain type of "democracy". It has gotten me thinking of Jacques Ellul's comments in Propaganda.

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

page 244
... any operation that transforms democracy into a myth transforms the democratic ideal. Democracy was not meant to be a myth. ... Let us merely say that democracy cannot be an object of faith, of belief: it is expression of opinions. There is a fundamental difference between regimes based on opinion and regimes based on belief. [emphasis added]

To make a myth of democracy is to present the opposite of democracy. 

page 247
We have seen how all propaganda develops the cult of personality. This is particularly true in a democracy. There one exalts the individual, who refuses to be anonymous, rejects the "mass," and eschews mechanization. He wants a human regime where men are human beings. ... To be sure, the object at this level is not idolatry, but idolatry cannot fail to follow if the propaganda is done well. Whether such idolatry is given to a man in uniform bursting with decorations, or a man in work shirt and cap, or a man wearing a business suit and soft hat makes no difference; those are simple adaptatio
ns of propaganda to the feelings of the masses. 

page 249
... Once democracy becomes the object of propaganda, it also becomes totalitarian, authoritarian, and exclusive as dictatorship.

pages 249-250
... This really is the ultimate problem: democracy is not just a certain form of political organization or simply an ideology--it is, first of all, a certain view of life and a form of behavior. If democracy were only a form of political organization, there would be no problem; propaganda could adjust to it. ... But if democracy is a way of life, composed of tolerance, respect, degree, choice, diversity, and so on, all propaganda that acts on behavior and feelings and transforms them in depth turns man into someone who can no longer support democracy because he no longer follows democratic behavior. 

pages 251-252
But the creation of the etiological myth leads to an obligation on the part of democracy to become religious. It can no longer be secular but must create its religion. Besides, the creation of a religion is one of the indispensable elements of effective propaganda. [emphasis added] The content of this religion is of little importance; these feelings are used to integrate the masses into the national collective. We must not delude ourselves: when one speaks to us of "massive democracy" and "democratic participation," these are only veiled terms that mean "religion." Participation and unanimity have always been characteristics of religious societies, and only of religious societies. [emphasis added]

page 254-255
The individual is seized, manipulated, attacked from every side; the combatants of two propaganda systems do not fight each other, but try to capture him

... An additional effect of contradictory propaganda is that the individual will escape either into passivity or into total and unthinking support of one of the two sides.

It is striking to see how this current, which is the point of departure of totalitarian parties, is beginning to take hold in the United States. These two different reactions--passivity or total commitment--are completely antidemocratic. But they are the consequence of some democratic types of propaganda. Here is the hub of the problem. Propaganda ruins not only democratic ideas but also democratic behavior--the foundation of democracy, the very quality without which it cannot exist. [emphasis added]

page 256
... A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself--of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas makes the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a "totalitarian man with democratic convictions," but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely "the sacred formulas of democracy" while acting like a storm trooper. 

in 2019 we could add just the words "on Twitter" to that last sentence and probably have a relatively safe assessment of some of what may ail us today. 

The idea that the problem in Europe is that populist and nationalists have influence might not be the problem. The problem might be that after a century of propagandistic techniques being deployed in technocratic cultures the harvest of that social-agriculture is bearing fruit that is terrifying to people who have at least some dim grasp of how totalitarian the impulses are that have been cultivated by the use of propaganda techniques.  People are trying to agitate and then direct tidal waves of human impulses using media that has been with us for ... maybe not as long as we've considered. 

And open letters in newspapers are going to solve this?  It would be nice to think that could even theoretically be possible but ... .

To the extent that members of the press are themselves part of those castes that create propaganda, or who at least use the tools that propagandists use, I doubt that the people who have been part of the process of agitation are going to be able to tamp down agitation.  A demise in institutional media has not had with it a demise in media use.

Adherents to the two-party system here in the United States have demonstrated the extent to which they are totalitarian.  How?  Well, any time a person who favors Republicans or Democrats presents executive power as executive tyranny but only when the "wrong" party has a candidate in the Oval Office who wields that power, the problem isn't in the amount of power but merely who has it.  People who were in dread of the powers that W was able to wield should have been in dread that Obama still had those powers and gained a couple of more and that Trump benefited from the inertia of executive accumulation of power.  There are some authors who have noted that the executive branch has gained powers in part because Congress hasn't done things it has enumerated powers to do ... and "if" there's truth to that then the executive branch has gained tyrant level powers because Congress would rather let the President authorize any number of military activities rather than officially declare a war.  It seems as if we have journalists committed to the two-party system who are also committed to an idea that X is tyranny just so long as the other people have X. 

Ellul's comment that propaganda ruins not only democratic ideas but also democratic behavior was made half a century ago. There was no Twitter. There was no internet, there was no social media means to mediate current events as we take for granted online today.

A definition of Europe offered by intellectuals may not be the Europe that resides in nations that are in economic bad times from the last twenty years ranging from Greece to Italy.  I've started getting the sense that Europe has a variation of what in the United States is thought of as a battle between the "coastal elites" or the "urban dwellers" and "flyover country". 

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