All posts filed under: Politics

Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?

 “Opinions,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “are to the gigantic apparatus of social life what oil is to machines. No one goes up to an engine and douses it in machine oil; one applies a little to the hidden spindles and joints one has to know.” Those defending free speech today may recoil from this advice. The idea of society as a machine, which came naturally to the Marxist Benjamin, is a long way from the ideal of free and creative individuals that many of them cherish. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a useful metaphor, if only because of the image it brings to mind of the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse. It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself. In particular, it comes from the sheer volume and chaotic nature of that speech. The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking …

Austria’s Snap Election and the End of the Grand Coalition

It’s been a busy year of voting across Europe. Elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany have dictated even the international news. On October 15, Austrians will go to the polls. A prosperous country at the heart of Europe, it has become used to relatively predictable politics. Two parties – the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP) – have dominated political life since the end of WW2. Yet Austria is also home to one of Europe’s most successful populist radical-right parties, the Freedom Party (FPÖ). Comparisons between the FPÖ and the French National Front or German Alternative for Germany are unavoidable. Even though these parties share more enemies than policies, talk of a ‘populist international’ movement is now rather crudely used to explain their rise. It’s true that the political, economic, and social shifts present in Austria have been visible across the EU. Parties have converged, markets have opened up, post-materialism is on the rise. But the FPÖ’s success is also a product of Austria’s very specific history and more recent political dynamics. …

Sweden’s Sexual Assault Crisis Presents a Feminist Paradox

Sweden prides itself on being a beacon of feminism. It has the most generous parental leave in the developed world, providing for 18 months off work, 15 of which can be used by fathers as paternity leave. A quarter of the paid parental leave is indeed used by men, and this is too little according to the Swedish government, which has made it a political priority to get fathers to stay at home longer with their children. Sweden has never ranked lower than four in The Global Gender Gap Report, which has measured equality in economics, politics, education, and health for the World Economic Forum since 2006. Of all members of Parliament, 44 percent are women, compared to 19 percent of the United States Congress. Nearly two-thirds of all university degrees are awarded to women. Its government boasts that it is the “first feminist government” in the world, averring that gender equality is central to its priorities in decision-making and resource allocation. But while Swedish women rank among the most equal in the world, they increasingly …

The Spirit of Centrism

“The far-right and far-left can be equally insane.”  ~John P. Avlon Centrism is a decidedly wimpy word, but it is a powerful political idea. Over the last few weeks, many commentators and critics have compelled me to contemplate centrism more carefully. Is centrism a kind of “average” of extremes: They want single-payer insurance; the other side wants free market insurance; centrists want some unique hybrid? What then when the extreme position is the correct one? Does the centrist defy the truth simply to mold the world to his or her obsessions with compromise? As I’ve contemplated these important questions, I’ve begun to believe that the truly unique and important thing about centrism is its insistence on debate, and its uneasiness with prepackaged dogmas and identity narratives. Centrism is a flexible political position, but it is inflexible in its urging of open inquiry and spirited discourse. Comprised of many competing interests and factions, modern post-industrial society is incredibly complicated. The best policies are difficult to discover, and they almost always require painful tradeoffs. The most straightforward …

Universal Basic Income and the Threat of Tyranny

Much praise has been heaped on the idea of a universal basic income in recent years. Experiments have begun in many countries, some mainstream politicians are starting to advocate it, and if we listen to many thinkers, especially among the Internet and tech crowds, it seems like our inevitable future. This is quite understandable, as the idea attempts to solve a real problem: with the advance of technology, fewer and fewer people are required to produce the amount of wealth required to sustain more and more people. Rather than invent more and more artificial jobs and scarcities, why not just accept the reality of this changing world, where not all people are needed for working, and instead release them to pursue their hobbies, studies, or charity? There has been criticism of the idea, but so far the debate tends to focus on two issues: the economic reasoning behind a universal basic income, and the ethics of allowing a majority of non-workers to live off the fruits of the labour of a small minority. What is …

E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the mark of true intelligence was “the ability to hold two opposing views in mind at the same time.” Actually, I’m not sure that intelligence is the right word. I think it is wisdom that allows us to hold opposing views in mind at the same time. And it’s certainly true that wiser, more measured voices are drowned out as politics becomes more polarised and the internet makes debate more extreme. Balance is elusive, for all of us in our individual lives, and across society as a whole, and even when attained it is often fleeting. The search for creative, but lasting, equilibrium is a quest as old as time. Balance isn’t boring if the stakes are high. Balance isn’t boring if you’re walking a tightrope without a safety net, 1000ft up in the air, while carrying a priceless vase. Each generation has to maintain the balance of society as best it can. We strive to avoid disaster. That priceless vase might be tradition, or skills, or learning, it …

Nationalism, Liberalism and the European Paradox

Imagine for a moment that an ethnic group declared a referendum of independence in an Asian country and the nation state in question promptly sought to take the act of rebellion down. Imagine that in the ensuing chaos over 800 people were injured in a brutal police crackdown. Imagine the international disgust if this had happened in Asia, or the Middle East, or Latin America, or even in parts of Eastern and Central Europe. There would be calls for interventions, the topic would be urgently raised at the Security Council —and there might even be talks of sanctions or the arming of moderate rebels. Of course, nothing of that sort happened as the Spanish state declared the Catalonian independence referendum a farce. Despite threats and coercion, over 2.2 million people voted in the Catalonian referendum—as the Spanish Guardia Civil attempted to crush the protesters—and  clashing with Catalan local police. Of the Catalans who managed to vote, 90% voted for independence. And today, thousands of people took to the streets in nationalist rallies in both Madrid …