Category Archives: Politics & int’l affairs

Politically themed episodes

Je suis Charlie, Je ne suis pas Charlie, and beyond

 I lived the entire upheaval provoked by the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in an echo, heard faintly from an Asian subcontinent engrossed in its own affairs, which are not unrelated to European questions. For in the big scheme of things the questions that are asked, around what type of state, democracy and economic system the countries of the subcontinent should have, are reminiscent of Europe’s current painstaking re-evaluation of values.

A very intense interview schedule and fluctuating internet availability did not leave me much space to write and express opinions in the heat of the moment otherwise than through shares, likes and retweets, but I can say I found a benefit in that process, since I was invited to read in quite a lot of detail the various positions espoused by global pundits and to form an opinion that took account of many of the ideas shared on social media those days.

Now, that I am back into a slower rhythm, I can start from here: my initial reaction, which stays with me to this day was and is “Je suis Charlie!”. For who, at least once in their life, did not feel like sticking their tongue out in the face of too much serious and righteousness? Who, in a fit of frustration, did not feel like kicking in the shin a too annoying preacher of the establishment, or did not feel like drawing on them a ridiculous moustache and long ears and whatever other appendage in order to ridicule any position that, in its extremism, risks erasing another, through the obliterating totalitarianism of self-righteousness and so called respect?

No one should die, be removed, erased, thrown into oblivion because they dared express an opinion that underlined the ridicule not of the ideas that were represented, but of what those purporting to support those ideas made of them. While watching some of the Charlie Hebdo caricatures that were deemed controversial, they all struck me through the fun they were poking at those Phariseans of all religions and creeds, and not at the ideas themselves. In this perspective, I can understand why the outcry, because there is no louder crier than the one exposed in the extremism and unreasonable assumptions of their beliefs. Some of you might remember that Umberto Eco built an entire novel around this idea: “The name of the rose” is all about how an over zealous monk killed and maimed in the effort of hiding an ancient manuscript that was praising the virtues of laughter. Why did he do that? Because he could not conceive laughter in the garden of God. Laughter would have discredited divinity. Eco’s characters might not have been real and the manuscript might have never have existed, but the temptation to silence doubt and questioning has always existed, especially when manifested through laughter and ridicule.

 But passons, as the French would say it, and let us embrace, as some of the Anglo-Saxon and other cultures did, that reading humour and satire at the “second degree”, i.e. between the lines and beyond appearances and into context is a cultural specialty that is French and not up everyone’s intellectual sleeve. Such people tended to talk about tolerance and being considerate with other’s opinions and hence against publishing such caricatures. Tolerance towards and consideration of what exactly? Of “If you annoy me with your opinions I will kill you because I get to define what offends me or not”? That to me sounds more like institutionalised fear, and worse, an abdication of critical spirit in the name of cultural relativism; worse even, it reeks of indifference insofar as it lets the idea that eradicating another is an acceptable outcome, “if they looked for it”, or, if we replace the term with one closer to an economic logic, “if they did not have what it takes to survive”.

Another type of argument that was put forward in the debate, and one that touched me deeply as it came from a community with which I identify, that of analysts and researchers and intellectuals, was to move somewhat away from whether the caricatures had their place to be or not and point out the “hypocrisy of Western protests for free expression” reminding one the long history of European oppression of free speech, coupled with the unspeakable violence and suppression brought by colonialism around the world. The essays written were powerful, well argued, and they confused me. What was I supposed to take from them? That because of Europe’s bloody history of censorship and persecution of free speech, for which thousands have died, including many of the writers and philosophers quoted in these essays, we should not protest it now? Just because everyone has their part of darkness with which they must struggle everyday, should we not uphold what we deem to be the features of our humanity and a more just society? Frankly, the binary logic exhibited in most of these articles, of the type “Europe has suffered an attack on free speech but because of its own dark history of attack on free speech it should shut up” pointed out to me one of the big problems highlighted by the polarisation produced by the Charlie Hebdo events: most logics stop at it, stop short of a proposal going beyond binary logic and polarisation. Most arguments of this kind sound like well crafted graduate papers, in which the brilliant student has learnt to present the arguments and counterarguments that their teacher has told them about, and they show their erudition by giving obscure quotes and examples illustrating their points, but they are so engrossed in this vain activity that they forget the way forward. Their texts remain those of students, epigones.

 Related to that, another problem: in my view, the reason why so many people felt sympathy and identified with Charlie Hebdo, despite the fact that a majority of people did not buy or even found an interest in its drawings was that in our societies we rely on publications such as Charlie Hebdo to carry the part of irreverence built-in the exercise of free speech, while we are busy submitting to a system that tries to quell such liberties. I would even venture as far as saying that the only way we accept doing this, is knowing that amongst us there are those who have not given up, who continue to battle. The problem is when a few must carry the banner that a majority has folded at the back of their conscience – sometimes they pay for this with their life. And then we receive a wake up call – not that everyone must now draw caricatures of the establishment, but must definitely relentlessly question it in order to improve on it. If not, we’ll pay with our freedoms. We already are.

And thus I come to my last point. In the flurry of articles read, there was one only, that I came across (there might be more) which seemed to me to strike an important note. It reminded its readers that the roots and causes of what happened had less with religious radicalisation and profanity and more with the inequalities and social injustices with which the capitalist system is rife. And that concerns all of us, not just the French. But tackling the system is so complicated that it is easier to concentrate on things like religion, caricatures, dark history and binary debates, and stop at that. In fact even its author, while pointing out the problems of the system, said “when we replace it with something else”, thus showing how daunting the task is. Because the truth is we do not really know what this “something else” exactly looks like and how to bring it about.

 In an article that I read this week, and the only one I will quote, by Pankaj Mishra, in the Guardian, After the Paris attacks: It’s time for a new Enlightenment I found a very accurate summary of our world, based on a reading of Hannah Arendt: we live in a world in which countries and peoples with different pasts live in the same present. That, the article continued, presupposes the need for a new Enlightenment, in which we talk more about moral obligations and solidarity than rights and standards.

 For myself, while not having a clear idea of what the “something else” or the new Enlightenment is fully made of, I can say I think it passes through personal responsibility with respect to private lives and the Polis, through an economy based on solidarity, which is not exclusively defined by pecuniary profits, but also profits one can make in terms of intellectual and quality of life gains, through a renunciation of fear that what we are is measured by what we have or what we consume; I think culture understood as the fabric of our lives and our itineraries and those of our ancestors is going to be the bedrock of our experience and therefore societies will stop trying to prove their supremacy over others because they won’t need the erasure of another in order to prove their self-worth. I do believe, however, that for such an order to emerge we shall need to leave aside our fascination with a binary approach to the world and emphasise the power of invention and innovation by bringing forward not only qualified criticism but also proposals.

 In the end, whether people identified or not with Charlie Hebdo is not even an issue. As long as it has taken them towards a deeper reflection of what they want to make of their lives, the death of the attack victims, as well as that of thousands others killed in the name of hatred can begin to have a meaning other than that of a cruel twist of fate. Ruxandra Stoicescu

Tales of the world episode 66 – For every cloud with a silver lining there is a silver lining with a cloud

This week, December 5th, Tales of the World celebrates three years of existence. Three years of mostly incompetent international relations, dismal economics, some of the bloodiest and animalistic conflicts in recent memory and a general sense of dissolution and dissatisfaction with the world as we know it…

 Music from Amparo Sanchez, Rio Turbio

Tales of the world episode 65 – 25 ans après

Le titre choisi pour cette chronique, « 25 ans après », vous rappelle-t-il un autre ? Pour un féru des aventures des mousquetaires d’Alexandre Dumas, la réponse est évidente, mais, au cas où vous ne les connaissez pas, « 20 ans après » est un roman qui reprend la vie mouvementée du royaume de France et de 4 de ses mousquetaires les plus vaillants 20 ans après leurs exploits de jeunesse…

 

Tales of the world episode 60 – When things fall apart

Do you remember what you learnt about  WW1 and the epoch surrounding it when you studied it in school or at university? The story went like this: world war 1 was the conflict which was meant to end all conflicts, it signified the end of the long 19th century and ushered a new world order. All these notions are relatively easy to grasp; what I had more trouble with until recently was the oft heard idea that all throughout the war and after, people lived in an atmosphere where the end of an era was felt. Apparently, one could feel the world changing, hear the dizzying sounds of life lived at new speeds, see it in vivid Technicolor, smell it through the new scented soaps of newly discovered public hygiene, taste in rapid succession the bitterness of war related poverty and post-war abundance…all this creating an eerie sense of momentous change and revolution.

I simply could not grasp, imagine, let alone experience, how that particular state of things would feel. Yet, this summer, these turbulent and at times surreal months of June, July and August 2014 have solved that particular problem for me, and I think I can say with some degree of confidence that these past 3 months I have been living fully immersed in the sensation that the world as we know it, is not only changing, but literally falling apart.

It’s not just that institutions and arrangements which we have been accustomed to are slowly coming apart at the seams; that, as I say it so often, states no longer seem capable to fulfil the social contract of protection of their own citizens, let alone those in other parts of the world who need it; what goes away with all this are also, more importantly, the relationships and values which kept a system in place. Admittedly, some of those values, the least useful, such as crude individualism, indifference, self-satisfaction, are in fact growing stronger, while a certain sense of morality, solidarity, common sense, really, are regularly undermined. This, with devastating effects, of which the crimes such as downing “by mistake” a plane full of innocent civilians and beheading people in filmed public executions are only just the pinnacles, not the exceptions. Impunity and the sense that in the name of a cause, be it ideological or commercial, individuals can be exempt of personal responsibility and free of ostracism for morally questionable actions is the substance that steadily dissolves the social fabric and justifies personal vendettas and crimes.

We should not let ourselves fooled: while our screens and tweeter feeds are flooded with the horrible crimes of rebels whose only cause is the advancement of their own interests, other, in appearance more peaceful, actors are weaving their toil, too. Undaunted by conflicts, on the contrary, some even profiting from them, such agents are more than happy to use the legitimacy of state and international structures in order to further their own agendas, which, if pushed to their final consequences, will enslave individual citizens to the whims of corporations and their irrational race for profits. The “unholy trinity”, as it is known, is the set of free trade agreements, the transpacific, Transatlantic and free services agreements that are currently negotiated in secret by the world’s governments. Come to think of it, given the barrage of news that conflicts from Gaza to Ukraine provide, they do not even need the veil of secrecy to go unnoticed.

At times, when reading the “fragmented news agenda” that some experts talk about, and thinking of all that I’ve just said, I have the feeling that, beyond 1914, our world resembles rather that of 1614, the beginning of the absolute monarchies era, a time of religious and civil wars.

Like Thomas Hobbes, who also happened to live in those times, I feel like saying: the current chaos is a symptom of the broken social contract between citizens and their representatives and as a consequence, political and social responsibility is fully reverting to individuals, who have the duty to exercise it actively and wisely. To conclude this first episode of a new season in the tales of the world series: hiding behind the “it’s not my responsibility” phrase is no longer an option; humanity has enough imagination and resources to come up with a better adagio.

With music from Chilly Gonzales, Never stop.

 

 

MH -17 aftermath – between capitalism, high politics and personal responsibility

France is poised to sell two Mistral war-ships to Moscow. London has been hosting the fortunes and déboires of Russian oligarchs for years now, not to mention its political parties and individual politicians receiving a steady stream of contributions from these oligarch’s wives and close relations since 2007. In addition to that, it emerges that, despite vehement protestations, the UK continues to sell weapons to Russia, as evidenced in a recently released parliamentary report. It would appear that the value of licences rocketed by more than half in the last year from £86m to £131.5m in terms of arms sales.

Germany is known to have long and tight ties with Russia, not only due to the ironically volatile but at the same time extremely solid gas connection, but also due to huge exports and investments that Germany has in Russia: 300,000 German jobs depend on trade with Russia, 6,200 companies with German owners are active in Russia, and German companies have invested €20 billion there.

These are only Europe’s largest economies’ relations with Russia. As one blog describes the entanglements of Russia’s richest, they have estates in the UK, Castles in Germany, Greek Islands, you name it.

No wonder then that in the aftermath of the MH-17 disaster we are witness to a pathetic cacophony of condemnation and cuddling of Russia, which further undermines European countries’ credibility as democracies.

Yet, in the ensuing schoolyard brawl between England and France, between them and Germany, and everyone against the US, the bigger picture that never gets mentioned is that dealings with Russia (and with China for that matter) have been accepted for years in the name of more profits, more high yielding investments and in the idea that, eventually, through economic development its system will change. Even today a reputable British paper upholds this thesis.

The discourse of getting people more (stable) jobs and income was fully used in this process, thus entangling further not only European leadership and businesses with criminal regimes, but ordinary citizens, who more than happily choose not to think what happens with the weapons, warships, cars and many other things that they produce.  I woke up this morning wondering what would I be doing were I a worker participating in the building of one of the Mistral ships that France has agreed to deliver to the Russians by the end of 2014. Would I just gloss over the news and say “it’s their dirty business, I am just trying to make an honest living”?

Frankly, the answer I reached was different, at the very least I would start looking for another job, and resign. Other options would be to try to mobilise internally in the company and see if the management were amenable to a protest action or to an action that de-legitimises this sale and another, even more socially engaged, would be to mobilise protests to raise awareness about what this sale means. Because what it means is that somewhere in France, an honest worker trying to keep his family, through a fragmented chain of contracts and deals, essentially participates in acts perpetrated by a regime which at best is demagogic and at its worst is criminal. This is after all the genius of capitalist production: an infinite division of labour separating the labourer from the ultimate consequences of their work, thus numbing any type of conscience or impact it might otherwise have on them.

It is easy to speak like this when one is not actually in this situation, and the article published today in Le Monde on the subject shows well the rock and the hard place in between which France finds itself on this matter: its fledgling economy can ill afford further loss of jobs and revenue. However, this is only so in the space of the capitalist and neo-liberal discourse which its leaders, like many others have adopted and perpetrated until it does not work anymore.

As I live and breathe in this world, it becomes apparent to me every day that even as simple citizens we can no longer abide such a course of things. The more feeble and illegitimate political power becomes, and the less representative the elected appear to be, the more that means that responsibility is devolved to citizens, and they must make their voice heard as to what they feel and think the course of things should be. That might involve tough choices such as taking paycuts, and job losses, and enduring periods of hardships. Because the truth is that even when we think that by doing otherwise we keep such dangers at bay, the system is such that it can only bring a delay, but not stop the inevitable, which is not joblessness and poverty (that is only just a stage) but eventual moral collapse and loss of any intrinsic humanity we might have.  And if you think I speak as a prophet of doom, check what certain Israelis are doing these days, while Gaza is being bombed. Such people bring humanity one step closer to its worse nightmares and are the product of a radicalised version of the system we currently bathe in.

That being said, my thesis is predicated on the belief that humans have a moral compass and are capable to define and express courses of action that are mindful of their kin. Centuries of war and ongoing conflicts show us this is not something that happens naturally, and checks and balances must be put in place for this to be achieved.

We must never ever delegate those, though, away from our human interest and personal responsibility.