#geopolitical fridays: “Guts” wins runner-up award at Notting Hill Editions 2015 Essay Competition

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I have been thinking a lot about Europe and its relationship to power recently.  So much that I wrote an essay on the topic and submitted it to the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize. To my surprise and delight, it was shortlisted and went on to win a runner-up award! Here is what the members of the jury made of it:

Guts – Johanna Möhring

An ambitious exposé of power-mongering in politics and of the European
naivety towards violence. Möhring argues that Europeans have never
‘smelled the fear’ that Russians have, and may lack the courage required
to fight for a free society.


‘Rarely do we, those born and raised comfortably in rich, peaceful,
western European countries quite experience a breakdown of law and the
brute exercise of force. And when we do, when violence suddenly erupts
into our extremely sheltered existences….very few have the mettle to
cope.’

You can read my essay after the jump. To order a copy of the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize Winners 2015, which groups together an absolutely fantastic selection of essays, click here.

”Guts” by Johanna Möhring

The
German weekly Die Zeit recently featured an up-to-date take on
the abduction of Europa. Above the caption “Europe is more
beautiful than the euro,” an oil painting showed a young woman,
clad in chic, star-covered blue jean overalls reminiscent of the EU
flag. She is seen taking a selfie while being carried ashore by Zeus
in the shape of a bull. Just like her pictorial predecessors through
the ages, modern-day Europa appears passive, a mere plaything to
forces beyond her control. But in contrast to the Europa painted by
masters of old, whose expression revealed an inkling of the not
necessarily pleasant things to come, 21st century Europa
seems oblivious, so absorbed is she with hedonistic navel-gazing. All
in all, a pretty accurate picture.

Have
we Europeans collectively become mere spectators of our fate? To the
extent that one can speak of Europe as a cultural and political unit,
it is most certainly guilty of deluding itself – and it is doing a
very fine job at it, to boot. Its delusion, in contrast to European
government bonds denominated in euro, is solidly AAA. We are deluding
ourselves regarding the nature of the world they live in. We are
deluding ourselves when it comes to own perceived superiority. And we
are deluding ourselves believing that the civilisation we live off
will just continue to support us. Unfortunately, nothing could be
further from the truth.

Funny
Games

Power
is back with a vengeance in international politics, and we ignore it
at our own peril. It has never been far out of sight, but the overly
optimistic parenthesis that opened with the fall of the Berlin Wall
has slammed shut with the destruction of the twin towers and the
Pentagon on 9/11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With
the Middle East and North Africa in turmoil, a refugee crisis
unfolding on Europe’s southern shore, a war right on its Eastern
border, and a United States desperate to disengage, it is high time
for the EU to face the music. The world is not a terribly nice place.

But
this is hard for Europeans to grasp, at least for those not having
spent time behind the Iron Curtain. For rarely do we, those born and
raised comfortably in rich, peaceful, western European countries
quite experience a breakdown of law and the brute exercise of force.
And when we do, when violence suddenly erupts into our extremely
sheltered existences – let’s say a case of bullying in the school
yard, a fight breaking out in a night club, a groping hand on the
subway – very few have the mettle to cope. We expect order to
prevail, and trust its guardian, the state, to whom we have gladly
delegated the monopoly of violence. Our bodies betray the ultimate
luxury of such an existence: The way we move about our cities shows a
resolute absence of situational awareness. Our nervous systems are
simply not trained to detect any dangers.

That
we live today without fear is the fruit of centuries of hard-won
self-perfection, as well as of conducive historical circumstances. In
The Civilizing Process,
the German sociologist Norbert Elias documents how from
800 AD to 1900 AD, Europeans gradually escaped from lives brutish and
short. Two elements have animated the trend to ever-decreasing
violence. Cohabiting in close proximity forced human beings to adopt
social norms of individual self-restraint. In parallel, the rise of
the modern state made fighting both obsolete and illegal.

Critics
of such an interpretation of European history can invariably point,
nilly willy, to colonization, the mass conflagrations of the the
First and the Second World Wars and genocide perpetrated with zeal on
European soil to prove that our lot has not lost its gusto for
cruelty and the use of force. Yet, available figures show that acts
of violence, and their acceptance, have been steadily decreasing in
the countries of the European Union.

Cattle
raised in the shelter of barns – this is what a Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung’s
columnist who recently retired from her
posting in Moscow likens us Westerners to.
Contrary to Russians, Kerstin Holm posits, we are weak, as we simply
have no idea what it means to exist in the wild. As an  enviable
contrast, at least for her, she introduces us to the Russian male
provider, toughened by his obligatory service in the armed forces and
steeled by the daily struggle for survival in the madhouse that is
Russia.

Never
mind the widish gap that might separate ideal from reality, her
observations point to a significant fact. Our lack of exposure to
violence explains in part our inability to coherently respond to what
is referred to, in diplomatic jargon, as Russia’s spheres of interest
policy. Our reactions to what de facto amounts to uprooting
the foundations of our post-1945 order fall into several categories:
Disbelief that such behaviour is even possible in this day and age.
The wish to appease and to avoid confrontation by finding
justifications for observed violation of rules. And lastly, the hope
that from somewhere, an authority will intervene to make everything
good again.

In
Funny Games, a movie by Austrian director Michael Haneke, two
young men randomly decide to torture and kill a middle-class family,
without any apparent motive. Slowly, almost lasciviously,
they weave a net of sheer brutality around father, mother and son
from which there is no escape. Early on, limits are playfully tested.
At each step along the way, the family is taken by surprise, its
members remaining passive until it is too late. A lot of the fun for
the intruders is derived from the knowledge that their victims are
simply not able to fight back. For them, violence is inconceivable.

Unsurprisingly,
the film caused quite a stir. Horror movie, social critique,
post-modern epic –  Funny Games could simply serve as
reminder – albeit an extreme one –  that violence is part of our
genetic make up. To ignore its existence is at best reckless, at
worst, pure folly. As much as we abhor it, without our ability to do
terrible things to others, we would not be where we are today.
Together with its polar opposite, our ability to form social bonds,
violence has accompanied us from the beginning of time.

Since
the end of the Second World War, Western European countries (the
United Kingdom and France to a lesser extent) have been allowed an
extended vacation from history. Sidelined from world politics,
trained over time to resolve all conflicts within a rule-based system
based on shared norms and compromise, today’s EU members find it hard
to see the world through spectacles of power, much less conceive of
organised acts of violence as a means of policy. Europeans have
lulled themselves into believing that such moral superiority,
combined with economic power would be enough to prevail. This puts
them at a disadvantage when dealing with adversaries that simply
refuse to subscribe to the same set of values. It also blinds
European countries to the fact that in today’s world, even their
allies are their competitors. And as mere satellites of the United
States, at least in security terms, they are not taken seriously.

That
child of mine

Americans
are an irksome lot for Europeans. They are children of Europe, even
of European enlightenment. But as any offspring, especially one that
has grown so tall that it can, and indeed  does, spit on our heads,
they drive us barmy.

As
children are wont to do, this particular child has chosen to live
according her own rules, disregarding fundamental parts of our
collective experience. Take for example her relationship to violence
and the state. In contrast to Europeans’ demonstrative abhorrence of
violent behavior and attempts at self-pacification, violence is very
much a constituent part and enduring feature of the Land of the Free
and the Home of the Brave. The act of founding the United States was
supremely civilised. Rather than spiraling into an orgy of bloodshed
ending in dictatorship as the French Revolution, its American
predecessor constituted a new beginning based on deliberation and
mutual obligation. But beyond her foundation, America took shape in a
brutal struggle for dominance over territory, on land and beyond her
shores, entirely unsuited for the tenderhearted. Sins of the past, be
it the extermination of Native Americans, or the crime of slavery,
continue to reverberate through the social
fabric of American society. Taken to its logical extremes, the
pursuit of happiness pretty much equals the survival of the fittest –
or, these days, the most wealthy and best connected.

As
French philosopher Pierre Manent pointed out in Democracy Without
Nations?
, the United States has never accepted what Manent calls
Hobbesian castration – the submission of the means of violence to a
centralised authority. As befitting a frontier nation, the
Anglo-Saxon principle of duty to retreat has been replaced by the
right to self-defense, a principle now enshrined in many US state
constitutions. We might shake our heads at American society’s
acceptance of around 30 000 gun-related deaths per year, a death rate
of about 10 people per 100 000, on par with Mexico (as a comparison,
the UK firearm-related death rate was 0.25 in 2010). But this is the
price Americans seem willing to pay for the right to bear arms and to
be deeply distrustful of their own government.

Another
key difference to Europe is the American relationship to religion. We
Europeans have learned, over centuries of agonizing confrontation
unleashing the worst in human character, just how dangerous religious
sentiment can be for the peaceful organisation of societies. It took
a long time and millions of dead to come to the now for us most
sensible conclusion that matters of the state and religious matters
need to be kept apart for the benefit of all. Expression of
religiosity has been mostly relegated to the private sphere. Not so
in America. We do not quite know what to make of members of the
United States government holding a prayer in the White House before
getting down to the hard task of running a war. Such behavior seems
absurd. How can a hyper-modern society behave in such a pre-modern
way?

I will
admit here that prayers in the Oval Office are not exactly my cup of
tea. But the question as to whether the purging of religion from
public life and sentiment has served Europe consistently well begs to
be asked. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, written in American
exile during the Second World War, Max Adorno and Theodor W.
Horkheimer go so far as to blame modernity for 20th
century totalitarianism. The disenchantment of the world was so
unbearable that human beings, craving for a lost sense of belonging
simply ran back into the fold of mythology, with terrifying
consequences.

It is
highly debatable whether choosing reason ultimately condemns you to a
fall into anti-reason.  But it is worth listening to Moses
Mendelssohn, philosopher and contemporary of Immanuel Kant, who
inspired Haskala, the
movement of Jewish
enlightenment in 18th
and 19th
century Germany. Two months before Kant published his abstract
treatise On Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?,
focusing on the improvement of humanity as a whole,
Mendelssohn presented About the Question: What Does it mean to
Enlighten?,
centering on the individual. In it, he warned
that enlightenment taken to
extremes would lead to brutality, egoism, irreligion and anarchy.
These warnings were echoed by the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke
during the French Revolution. Without going so far as to trace a
direct line between the Enlightenment and Nazi death camps, suffice
to say that our relationship with spirituality, or lack of it, keeps
haunting us.

Our
many differences aside, the destinies of Europe and the United States
are deeply intertwined. It is often said that the European Union has
many fathers and mothers. But as in the fairy tale Sleeping
Beauty
, how foolish are we to consistently snub an especially
significant godmother. It was the United States that paid a
significant price in blood and treasure which enabled the defeat of
Nazi Germany. It was the United States that resurrected Western
Europe from the ashes of the Second World War and propped up its
ailing economies with loans. It was the United States who forced
Western Europeans, first among them French and Germans, to reconcile
under a Pax Americana.  It was the United States that took on
the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Has America acted selflessly?
Hardly. But there can be no doubt that for almost a century now, the
United States has consistently been deciding Europe’s fate. The least
we could do, if only for the sake of intellectual honesty, would be
to stop treating Americans as meddling and somewhat bumbling cowboys.

Military,
economic and cultural powerhouse, promoter of democracy and human
rights, beacon of social progress and innovation – the United
States is all that. But our benign hegemon also comes with a side of
wars of aggression, CIA operations toppling elected governments,
counterinsurgency campaigns financed through drug-running, drone
attacks killing extra-judicially and a gigantic surveillance
apparatus spying on friend and foe alike. These side dishes leave a
bad taste in the mouth of anyone wanting to quench primitive
anti-Americanism fueled, in no small part, by feelings of
inferiority. But our justified critique of America’s dark side begs a
serious question: What are our values? And do we have the will to
fight for them, rather than to rely on the implicit and explicit
security guarantee provided by the United States? Ultimately, our
choice is stark. It is between bucking up or shutting up.

Eurasian
temptations

In
1997, Alexander Dugin, a Russian political scientist who has risen
from relative obscurity to the dubious honor of being one of Vladimir
Putin’s semi-official ideologues, published The Basis of
Geopolitics.
In it, he
expanded on Eurasianism, a 1920s Russian émigré intellectual
current advocating an umma-style union of eastern European and
Asian countries as distinct from European civilisation. Dugin
transformed this school of thought into a fully-fledged call to arms
against Atlanticism. Eurasia, with Russia at its heart, would become
the staging ground of a new anti-American, anti-liberal revolution.

So to
those fed up with rootless hyper-modernity and blustering American
domination, Russia can offer an alternative. Across the continent,
from the extreme left to the extreme right, quite a few find the
siren song from the East far from unappealing. Dugin might have been
sacked last year as head of the sociology faculty at Lomonossov
University for having been a bit too vocal on the war in Ukraine, but
the ideas he expressed remain.

The well from which anti-liberal feelings can be brought up runs deep
in Europe. A spirit of anti-enlightenment, a response to French
thinkers such as Voltaire or Jean Jacques Rousseau dominating the
18th century, has always existed, especially in Germany.
Johann Gottfried Herder, German poet,
philosopher and historian, who deeply influenced
Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Hegel, propagated a
cultural, organicistic rather than political vision of the nation.
Herder, himself supportive of democracy and the expression of the
individual, was too intelligent to fall into the trap of blind
nationalism, or anti-semitism, for that matter. Others inspired by
his writings would not show such powers of discernment.

Take
Thomas Mann, a most brilliant and cultivated mind. During the First
World War, he wrote and published a series of essays, Reflections
of a Nonpolitical Man
, in which he presented Imperial Germany as
caught in a life-and-death struggle against “Western” values. The
liberal civilisation of France and England and its shallow
materialism was out to crush German culture and soul, in itself
non-political and authoritarian by nature. Mann, later persecuted by
the Nazis, would change his tune on democracy, but he never
repudiated these essays.

What
is it that, deep down, has the capacity to draw us into the
anti-liberal realm? The attraction of a certain blustering, botoxed
and occasionally shirtless authoritarian leader can only explain so
much. Although many do indeed admire Putin precisely for his
uninhibited use of force, I suspect that our semi-flirt with Russia
reveals something more profound: a longing for belonging,
disenchantment with the disenchanted world we are forced to inhabit.
It uncovers a difficulty to accept a purely technical, scientific and
rational outlook on the world, something that is at the heart of
Eurasianism. It is the refusal of modernity itself. Not by chance
does Dugin quote Martin Heidegger as an inspiration.

In the end, Europeans fundamentally do not fit into a Russian realm,
as much as they might resent unfettered economic and political
liberalism. The gap between our conceptions of the world is just too
wide.

If, as said earlier, Europeans resemble barn-raised cattle, tagged
and complacent, oblivious to the fact that we might one day be
shipped off to a fully automatized meat processing plant, Russians
bear a mark of a different kind. Despite the absence of barn walls,
they are not freer than us, courtesy of their violent history with
its disregard for individual human life.

Russians carry the indelible stamp identifying those animals that
have been to the slaughterhouse. They have smelled the fear. They
have witnessed the machines doing the executing, the slicing and the
packaging. They have been let go, but those who run the place make
sure they never quite forget what they saw. Russians, like others
under similar circumstances, have opted for a perfidious
psychological response. They have thoroughly trained themselves to
worship their potential slaughterers for their ruthless capacity to
kill.

We in the West might be weak because we have lost the capacity to
imagine what is possible. Russians are weak because they remember
only too well what states can do to their citizens, and what
individuals might do to their brethren if given the opportunity. As a
consequence, most Russians are cowed into admiration and submission
by the mere waving of a butcher’s hook. How lucid and brave are those
that march in protest against Putin. They should be our inspiration.

How to be free

Last
November, Pope Francis pronounced a historic speech in front of the
European Parliament in Strasbourg. It was a glorious kick in the
behind not only to those assembled, but also to Europe as a whole.
The pontiff lamented the aloof European Union bureaucracy. But his
harshest criticism was reserved for our collective focus on economic
rather than spiritual welfare. Europe was in danger of loosing her
soul, as well as her humanist spirit she took such pride in. At the
heart of what constituted Europe stood the human being, equipped with
a transcendental dignity to ignore and deny this was to
rob Europe of her vitality and her capacity to act. Whenever Europe
had achieved great things, Francis said, she had done so anchored in
the universe, walking with firm steps on the ground, all the while
looking at the stars. Of course the leader of the Catholic Church has
an agenda. But when the pope tells you to get your act together, you
might just want to listen.

In
Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, its heroine
Anna sits in the kitchen, utterly exhausted from life’s existential
struggles. There she has a sudden insight:

“Very few people really care about freedom, about liberty, about
the truth. Very few people have guts, the kind of guts on which a
real democracy has to depend. Without people with that sort of guts a
free society dies or cannot be born.”

I
suspect that we are living through times that demand the radical
rethinking and refounding of all our institutions. More than from any
perceived or real Islamist threat, European societies are in danger
of erosion from within – from the fraying of the social bonds that
tie us together, from the absence of transcendence
in our lives and from our inability to be sovereign, which means to
conceive of the use of violence, if need be. Yes,
it takes guts to be free, it is no easy feat. Not only is freedom
hard to take, it also is not free: you have to fight for it. And you
need to know what you are fighting for.

Given
what is at stake, we might feel daunted, and bewildered. But perhaps
it is not a bad start to be perplexed. Jorge Semprún certainly
thought so when bringing up Maimonides in
one of his essays on Europe’s fate, From Perplexity to
Lucidity
. Semprún was born in 1923 in Madrid and died in Paris
in 2011. In between, he managed to do quite a number of remarkable
things. He fought in the French Resistance. He survived Buchenwald.
After the war, he was one of the clandestine leaders of the Spanish
communist party. Post-Franco, he served as Spain’s minister of
culture. He was an accomplished writer. Semprún departed from this
world four years ago, and he left us with a mission. If we are to
live, rather than to decay, if we are to walk straight, rather than
to grovel, there is no other way than to dare looking at the burning
sun, even if it hurts our eyes. We must be lucid. We must save
critical reason, the kind of thinking that is democratic and open to
human dialogue. It is what has made us. We have to hang on to it at
all costs.

© Johanna Möhring 2015

Johanna M

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