All posts filed under: Europe

Stopped Cold: Remembering Russia’s Catastrophic 1939 Campaign Against Finland

While the Germans had been flexible on the fine print of their August 23rd, 1939 non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had been meticulous with his own territorial claims. By insisting on Soviet predominance in Finland and the Baltic states, Stalin could not only recover Russia’s old Tsarist borders in the north-west but also acquire naval bases to project Soviet power further into the Baltic Sea, whence came numerous stores vital to the Nazi war effort, from Swedish iron ore and timber to Finnish nickel. Compounding the economic leverage Stalin enjoyed over his partner in Berlin—owing to Hitler’s need for Soviet oil, manganese, cotton, and grain, as well as rubber transshipments from Asia—Soviet domination of the Baltic, Stalin believed, would turn Nazi Germany into a virtual economic vassal of the USSR. The one thing Stalin had not reckoned on was that any of these neighbors might object. Certainly he did not expect resistance from the Baltic states. As early as September 24th, 1939, three days before Warsaw surrendered to Germany, Soviet Foreign Minister …

Europe, China, and the New Global Hierarchy

Seen from Beijing, Europe is an Asian peninsula. ~Angela Merkel For more than 20 years the Chinese Communist Party engaged the world wearing the mask of smiling diplomacy, and for more than 20 years the world was fooled. We believed in such unlikely concepts as “Chimerica” and “Chindia,” and we trusted the sickly-sweet promise of “win-win co-operation.” There were always isolated voices warning us of Beijing’s intentions throughout those years—Cassandras who knew what lay ahead—but we chose to ignore them, for the most part. This began to change in 2017 with the Trump administration, which refused to accept Beijing at face value. And 2020 was the year the Party’s mask finally slipped. It became impossible to ignore the volumes—the libraries—of evidence pointing to genocide in the concentration camps of Xinjiang. Meanwhile 30 years’ worth of promises about Hong Kong’s political and civil liberties proved to be emptier than a Xinjiang mosque, as that once-free city was abruptly swallowed into the totalitarian motherland. By the end of 2020, China’s relationships with the US and Australia had …

Anti-Colonialism’s Bad History

Prevailing academic theories of race relations hold that wealth and power differences between groups of people arose from social, economic, and legal systems created to benefit one group of people over another. One of those systems, we are told, was colonialism. Hence the renewed interest in European imperialism and calls to “decolonize” everything from education and beauty to music and health. “Renewed” because this is, of course, not the first time that colonialism has been blamed for the vast wealth and power differences readily observable in the world today. The story starts with Karl Marx. Marx admired capitalism, which he credited with destroying feudalism and the “idiocy” of rural life. The fly in the capitalist ointment, as Marx saw it, was competition, which he thought would drive down profits. To remain profitable, he averred, capitalists would be compelled to squeeze laborers’ wages, thus “immiserating” the working class. The more rational economic system Marx envisaged would do away with competition and replace it with central planning. That was a big mistake, but not the only one. Between …

What Happened to Social Democracy?

In a world that seems to be divided between neoliberal orthodoxy and identitarian dogmas, it is possible to miss the waning presence of traditional social democracy. Born of the radical Left in Marx’s own time, social democrats worked, sometimes with remarkable success, to improve the living standards of working people by accommodating the virtues of capitalism. Today, that kind of social democracy—learned at home from my immigrant grandparents and from the late Michael Harrington, one time head of the American Socialist Party—is all but dead. This tradition was, in retrospect, perhaps too optimistic about the efficacy of government. Nevertheless, it sincerely sought to improve popular conditions and respected the wisdom of ordinary people. In its place, we now find a kind of progressivism that focuses on gender, sexual preference, race, and climate change. Abandoned by traditional Left parties, some voters have drifted into nativist—and sometimes openly racist—opposition while more have simply become alienated from major institutions and pessimistic about the future.1 The revolution in class relations Social democracy was a product of the inequities of …

Houses of Horrors

In country after country, museums are now undergoing an épuration—a process of confession and penance. Until recently, debate about empire in European and other democratic countries was consigned to historians’ squabbles. Now, the West’s colonial past occupies a central place in the culture wars, roaring for belated recognition of its legacies. At the least, the demand now pressed upon the museums, mainly by their own radicalised staffs, is for greater sensitivity and respect in the display of the millions of artefacts taken from colonial possessions. At the most morally exacting extreme, they are exhorted to adopt a similar posture to that taken by Holocaust museums, acknowledging complicity in organised massacres. On this account, museums must bear witness to past events “where people are killed in their thousands and tens of thousands, when palaces, temples and villages are bombarded, when cultural treasures are looted and sold.” This is the uncompromising posture adopted by Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University, curator of archaeology at the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and author of The Brutish …

Do Lockdowns Work? Only If You Lock the Borders Down, Too

For almost a year, the central policy debate in most Western countries has been whether—and for how long—to impose lockdowns. Advocates of stringent lockdowns argue that measures such as stay-at-home orders and forced closures of businesses are necessary to save lives and prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed. So-called “lockdown sceptics,” on the other hand, argue either that such measures are ineffective, or that their benefits are outweighed by the associated social and economic costs; and that a focussed protection strategy is preferable. (The term “lockdown,” as I am using it, does not encompass all non-pharmaceutical interventions. In particular, I am excluding non-onerous, common-sense measures like asking symptomatic individuals to self-isolate, encouraging vulnerable people to work from home, and restricting large indoor gatherings.) The evidence suggests that lockdowns have been effective, but only when they were combined with strict border controls. Looking across the Western world—Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—just six countries have kept the rate of confirmed COVID-19 deaths below 300 per million. Those six are: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Cyprus, …

The Death of Political Cartooning—And Why It Matters

Six years ago, on January 7th, 2015, two brothers armed with Kalashnikov rifles assaulted a building on Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris, where they killed a maintenance man named Frédéric Boisseau and forced their way into the second-floor offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. They asked for four cartoonists, by name, and executed each of them. They also killed four other journalists, a bodyguard assigned to protect one of the cartoonists in the event of just such an attack, police officer Ahmed Merabet, and a friend of one of the cartoonists. Following a nihilistic two-day crime spree, the brothers were killed in a hail of police bullets outside a printworks north-east of Paris. The ghastly murders at Charlie Hebdo shocked the world. Yet while the scale and violence of the incident were unprecedented, such attacks against cartoonists are hardly unknown. Throughout history, cartoonists have been jailed, kidnapped, tortured, exiled, and murdered. Ostensibly, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed for drawing pictures of the prophet Muhammad. (Two days after the murders, an al-Qaeda cell in Yemen …

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 …