All posts filed under: Europe

A Loss of Direction and the Rise of Populisms

Since the end of World War II, we have mostly been living in the Age of Moderation—an epoch characterized by middle-of-the-road politics, in which a moderate Left and Right pursued partially overlapping policies. This long period configured our political compass toward compromise, but that compass now is swinging wildly, back and forth. The general consensus is that this loss of direction is due to the rise of populisms; a revolt against the elites in the name of the people. There are two competing populisms, both of which condemn the prevailing neoliberal order. Right-wing populists claim they ventriloquize the concerns of a religious, moral, and hardworking but silent majority. They are perceived by the political center as the primitive ghosts from an unenlightened past. Left-wing populists demand more progressive welfare-oriented policies, total “equality” and an end to “repression” under the label of democratic socialism. The political center views left-wing populism as a mortal danger to the delicate mixed economy. These two populisms are engaged in a bitter struggle, and both battle the mainstream moderate Left and …

Secular Modernity under Theocratic Assault

Professor Leszek Kołakowski, one of the great Polish intellectual dissidents from the Stalinist period, liked to say that when he debated with apologists for the system, he often found himself almost on the losing side. Kołakowski hastened to add that this fact did not owe to the superior arguments of his opponents. To the contrary. The arguments of his opponents were so foolish and antiquated that he’d simply forgotten what the original refutations were. A similar phenomenon can be registered in the West today with respect to heady accusations of blasphemy. With homicidal religious maniacs avenging the hurt feelings of the faithful, many liberal-minded people have taken to questioning fundamental republican norms and the basis of secular democracy. The recent events in France, which has again become the target of Islamist menace, provide a useful occasion to review the newly contested principles of the Enlightenment. This autumn has brought news of three separate Islamist attacks on French soil. It began with a knife attack last month in Paris outside the former office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. A few weeks …

Don’t Listen to the Outrage. ‘Cuties’ Is a Great Film

If you’d asked me a month ago what could possibly break through a news cycle dominated by the biggest global pandemic in a century, the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the worst civil unrest in the United States since the Civil Rights Era, a diverse, French arthouse film about four 11-year-old girls trying to win a dance competition wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Yet since its recent release on Netflix, Cuties has broken through the noise, and how. I wish it were for the right reasons: For instance, because Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré has written and directed a brilliant, award-winning first feature drawn from her experience growing up as an immigrant kid caught between cultures. Or because it’s alive with tenderness and heartache: a grittier, cross-cultural Eighth Grade about friendship, the love of a parent and child, and our longing to fit in, no matter our age, no matter the price. Or because it’s alive to injustice without preaching or judgement. But no. Cuties has broken through because of grotesquely false …

A Europe Divided and Unfree

Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has believed it is more resilient than it is, and less vulnerable. It has indulged the conceit that it will never again find itself at daggers drawn with its Russian neighbor. In the European imagination, post-communist Russia posed no threat, a convenient interpretation that remained intact even after the rise of the KGB’s mafia state and the projection of Moscow’s imperial designs on its “near abroad.” At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin spoke of a “unipolar world”—meaning one dominated by the United States—that would prove “pernicious not only for all those within this system but also for the sovereign itself.” America’s “hyper use of force,” declared the Russian president, was “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” At the time, with an unpopular Republican president at the helm in Washington—unpopular, that is, in Europe, though also in America—Europeans extended a generous reception to Putin’s remarks. Many Europeans retained their traditional skepticism of American power and remained committed to the idea of a “different” …

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless. The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness …

The Passing of the Second Imperial Age

In the half-millennium of modern European imperialism, from the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century to the withdrawing roar of the British and French empires in the 20th, there was one truth on which all of these powers, often at war with each other, could agree. That was, land which could be designated terra nullius (“no-one’s land”) could be taken—indeed, had to be taken—by one of the powers, or another power would get it. So empires conquered large swathes of territory in Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, North America, and Australasia, most of which was regarded as unoccupied. They did so in pursuit of precious metals and stones, for settlement and defence (of other lands already seized), for points of supply to their ships, in order to demonstrate their power, and—the most cited reason in polite society, even more polite if put into French—for the mission civilatrice or the mission religieuse. That last of these—the obligation to deliver Christianity to uncivilised heathens—is sometimes dismissed as merely the hypocrisy of pious icing layered over …

After the Virus: The Way We Live Next

How will we live, or be forced to live, after the pandemic? “I don’t know” is—according to Paul Collier, the famed development economist—the most honest answer to this question and others related to the cause, rise, treatment, and decline of the current pandemic. This is, after all, an unprecedented disease of rare speed and communicability, for which there is no cure and no agreed political and social response. Yet, contradicting himself within weeks, Collier wrote a similarly powerful essay in which he argued that centralisation had failed, and devolution from those who pronounce from on high to those who practice on the ground is necessary. Perhaps he was merely demonstrating that, in this maelstrom of conflicting arguments, no-one, no matter how distinguished, can wholly know his own mind from day to day. In any case, agnosticism is as unwelcome to journalism as it is to governance. And journalists, who operate under fewer constraints than governments, can at least consider some likely alternatives, while remaining alive to the possibility that unknown unknowns will continue to turn up, …

Italy and the EU: The Hard and Stony Road Ahead

“Too many,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on April 16th, “were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning. And yes, for that it is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology.” And heartfelt the apology probably was. For weeks, von der Leyen and her colleagues had been receiving frantic pleas for assistance from the Italian government, and little had been forthcoming. By mid-April, Italy was at last beginning to pull out of the dire circumstances that had placed it at the top of the world’s league of COVID-related death: At its grisly peak at the end of March, nearly 1,000 Italians a day were perishing from the virus, a terrible figure that will, as in other countries, almost certainly turn out to be an underestimate. It was still in great need of help—from the EU, above all—but it was no longer the worst place in the world. It was time for the EU to display some public contrition. But, for several reasons, …

The Erdoğanization of Hungary

Earlier this week, ostensibly in light of the COVID-19 crisis, the Hungarian parliament granted the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, rule by decree. With fewer than 500 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus as of this writing, Hungary has not yet been badly hit by the pandemic, so this draconian measure was almost certainly unnecessary. Followers of European politics, however, are not surprised. Next month, Orbán will complete an uninterrupted decade in office (having previously served from 1998 to 2002), and his tenure has been marked by a series of moves to scale back post-Cold War liberalism hitherto embraced by Hungarians. In 1956, as the second decade of the Cold War got underway, an anti-communist revolution erupted in Budapest. Stalin had died a few years previously and been replaced by Nikita Khrushchev from the pro-reform faction of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Khrushchev’s speech before the Soviet congress, in which he had condemned Stalin, led commentators and analysts across the West to wonder if tensions might be easing. In the winter of that year, encouraged …

As Erdoğan Weaponizes Turkey’s Migrants, Greece Pays the Price

Thousands of migrants and refugees have massed at the Greek-Turkish border, attempting to pass into Europe. Europe got a first test of what it would look like if Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes good on his February 28th declaration to open the floodgates and deluge the EU with a new wave of asylum seekers. Last week, Turkish forces suffered heavy military losses in Syria, where Erdoğan has been pursuing an increasingly aggressive policy. He now is looking for a ceasefire in Idlib, site of the latest Turkish intervention and the last significant outpost of resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. Erdoğan’s announcement regarding asylum-seekers seemed aimed not only at pressuring other countries to support his shifting war aims, but also at diverting attention away from a Syrian military quagmire into which Erdoğan recently poured 7,000 fresh troops. In a brazen attempt to weaponize the migrant crisis, the country’s officials have begun providing free transport to thousands of refugees seeking entry into Greece. Lest anyone miss the message, Friday’s mini-exodus was broadcast live on Turkish …