Friday, September 16, 2005

Islam and belonging

Politicians, particularly in the aftermath of the recent events in London, have made a point of repeating the mantra that Islamic suicide bombers are only a very small minority of Muslims and Islam itself is a religion which in its essence is a religion of peace.

While this statement makes perfect political sense, it would be foolish, and wrong, to alienate a large portion of the population, the situation is a lot more complicated. A crucial point of it is that Islam is, like Christianity or Judaism, a revealed monotheistic religion. One thing that can be said objectively is that such religions cannot conceive competition: to attract, or to keep, followers it has to be the best and its adherents must be the only ones to whom it is offered a chance for a good afterlife.

Nowadays it is considered narrow-minded and medieval, but at the deepest level we do believe, if we believe, that the others will burn in hell simply for belonging to another religion. The (mainly Judeo-Christian) West is now in a position of social and economic predominance and therefore tolerance and openness is quite an easy mantle to wear. The Islamic world on the contrary is in a position of clear political and economic inferiority and the question is clear in front of many Muslim eyes, “Why is that that we, the superior people, are not on top?” If we lived in an Islam dominated world, probably we would have Christian suicide bombers. This statement is of course absurd and dictated purely by symmetry and the situation is far from symmetric, but its absurdity should at least constitute ground for thought.

A solution to this problem will not be found written on this page but at least we should admit that the problem is much bigger than a simple exercise in social engineering: it is the symptom of a dynamical process far beyond our reach, just like the extinction of certain animal species or long term weather changes.

The hatred that so much of the Muslim world feels for us is a perfect natural feeling, not the mad outburst of a few exalted people, natural as the fact that some animals will disappear forever from the face of the earth. We should not roll our eyes and pretend we are facing a small singularity: we have to steer our ship through a continuous process. This process is a stormy one and, as it pitches different people against each another, it is interesting to ponder about what belonging can mean.

It has been argued at great length that since the end of the cold war the world has been more and more divided along lines that discard ideologies in order to embrace affinities based on culture and even more religion. Jews have often been accused of feeling Jewish first and only after to feel any allegiance to their country of birth or residence: this could now become the norm with many other people and in particular with Muslims. The interesting thing is that to admit this is considered taboo in our society, it is admitting to be a bad citizen. Why?

The problem takes a slightly different aspect in Europe and in the United States. In America one should not feel any allegiance to a foreign power, but the actual set of things one should cherish do not matter as long as they are now American, be they the flag or peanut butter. In Europe it is more complicated as one should not only not feel any allegiance to a foreign power, but one should cherish a specific set of tradition and cultural phenomena. It is true that curry is now as English as the proverbial cup of tea, but one could almost view it as the exception that confirms the rule and this in the most open country in Europe.

Maybe it is time to reconsider what belonging means. Communism represented a sort of alternative: the concept of international brotherhood of workers meant that one would show an allegiance to something else that one’s own country, but that something was not an actual country (the arrival of the Soviet Union did not really change things in the sense that not all communists around the world were necessarily Russian fifth columnist.)

It is important to notice how communism was born at the same time as the problem of establishing what belonging to a country meant. In a way it offered people that did not belong a chance to belong to something else: a small ethnic minority living within a larger, ethnically different country could always turn to communism (or at least its leaders would) to find an inner source of strength and support from the outside. Had the Basque separatists played only on their cultural and linguistic difference from the rest of Spain, they would have missed the enormous symbolic (and at times practical) strength resulting from embracing a Marxist ideology: by doing so they could claim to have something in common with people as different as the ANC or the Vietcong.

With the death of militant communism this is no longer the case and religion has taken its place with several important differences. First and foremost anyone could become a communist. The Basques, the Zulus, the Viet Minh could turn to Marxism; they could not as easily turn to Islam. Second, and probably as important, anyone can unbecome a communist. Among immigrants it is harder to resist a mother’s call to marry a “good” Jewish, Indian or Italian girl than to abandon a youthful father-inspired infatuation with planned economy.

Now we are witnessing the crumbling of the concept of state that started in the XIV century with the tentative consolidation of some central states and then continued in the XIX century with the move towards the equation of state and nation, language and land. Globalization and the increasing mouvement of people are questioning all this and it almost feels that the struggle is one in which we are waiting for the first one to blink. We all naively agree that in the absence of profound cultural differences interactions would be easier and yet who between Us, the welcoming society, and Them, the guests, is going to take the first step? Who is going to embrace a positive cultural “anonymity” with the risk of now loosing flavour and one day be recognized and potentially attacked anyway? Sartre once said that Jews are those that other people consider Jews: in this situation in particular to take the first step is no guarantee that the other will follow.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The three challenges of Europe

The troubles the European Union is facing at the moment are crucial in that they represent three of the great dilemmas in the path of western democracy and, increasingly, the world at large: the intrinsic paradox of representative democracy, the role of social values in leftist ideologies and competition in society.

Modern societies are too large for everyone to actually have a personal say in its direction and thus we elect a representative to voice our concern and the one of like-minded people. In this simple picture parliament is the sum of everyone's concerns and no more than that. For this reason there are many unelected bodies (the British House of Lords was a great example before being fed to the mob) because it is understood that there are some issues that are bigger than the sum of everyone's concerns and also that a politician fearful for his reelection might not be brave enough to tackle them.

It is of course a matter of personal opinion what proportion of elected versus unelected bodies should constitute the political structure of a country. One thing that needs to be said immediately, however, is that whatever decision is taken in this matter it is probably not reversible. To turn unelected bodies into elected ones, like franchising new voters, is quite easy, the opposite, like disfranchising, which I do not think was ever attempted in a democracy, is much harder, practically impossible. The baby and dirty water analogy comes to mind at this point.

The European Union for a long time after its conception was very distant from the people. It was an ideal and a concept cherished by many, but the wonderful progress made in terms of trade and administration was carried out very much behind the scenes. Lately, for reasons that are besides our scope, the Union has entered more into the public eye and the policies are dangerously becoming the outcome of simply the sum of the individual voters' wishes. The term greater good has been used so often that it is almost meaningless but nowadays we are about to forfeit what little is left. As time goes by the problem increases as information is more readily available and politics is more and more conducted through opinion polls and tabloid headlines.

To hold the view that voters are fundamentally stupid and politicians should be left to their job is probably wrong or at least extremely patronizing, however to state that voters are fundamentally selfish is certainly less off the mark. Moreover, as Charlemagne noted in this week's issue, a crucial point about the European Union is that it has no force of deterrence (unlike the US federal government) and therefore when individual interests clash with greater goals, there is very little that can be done. The development of this particular issue, how to temper the voters' say with needed reforms should be watched carefully since it is a problem afflicting all type of representative democracies. Because of its nature the European Union has probably more room for experiment than a nation state. May the better direction be taken.

When the powerful bodies that are trade unions were created, the labor landscape was much more uniform. The distinction between capitalists and workforce was well defined; the working classes literally described as such were larger and less varied; heavy industry played a much larger role in industry as a whole. The ideal of a Communist International was probably heartfelt and the phrase “l'oisif ira loger ailleur” out of the anthem was well meant. Industrial actions were taken rarely and after careful consideration: when the steel workers in Italy's “Stalingrad” went on strike in 1943 they did so risking their lives. What happened? Why do we now associate trade unions simply with a group of people that wants to be paid more for working less? Of course the way this question is phrased is provoking, but a similar thought, with a varying degree of cheek, can be read in the mind of many representing a wide political spectrum.

When the French are afraid of being invaded by Polish plumbers, what happened to the international brotherhood of workers straddling national borders? One can argue that even in the golden days of unions, when the miners went on strike they forbade whoever wanted to work to do so. However the difference is that now unions of this sort represent less and less of the population and more crucially they are higher up the social ladder which tends to take some of the moral mantle away. The real have-nots are increasingly non unionized. Unions are becoming more like corporations or guilds, in that they move away from representing the workers in general towards representing special interests. An economic system centered around corporations is not in itself a bad one, but it is definitively something different. One has to wonder whether the left has really come to terms with this fundamental shift because the claim to a struggle towards a real social model and values rings more and more hollow.

Is competition good? Certainly it is very natural in the sense that it is the only way in which one can obtain the best out of a group of individual or any improvement out of a system: be it in the form of natural selection or dialectic process, competition has been acknowledged for long to be a powerful instrument of dynamism. But is it right? In a free market economy everyone is pushed to offer what makes him different, better than others, to offer what gives him the competitive hedge. Why protect Italian cheese makers? Ukrainians, say, might produce cheaper cheese, but Italians are going to produce such better quality one that they are simply going to occupy different parts of the cheese making spectrum. If we protect Italians producers they are going to cover the entire spectrum, good and bad producers alike.

Protectionism of course is illogical and expensive, but on the other side one can argue that there are people that do not necessarily want to compete, what if you want to produce mediocre cheese and, say, enjoy more free time, shouldn't your country protect you? To be able to answer this question honestly is crucial; instead there is a considerable amount of skirting the issue, bringing in arguments that are simply peripheral. The same way as on the matter of life or choice we acknowledge that there is an unbridgeable gap of opinion which nonetheless does not stop us from continuing to legislate about related issues, we should reach a firm point about competition.

The unions on this point are not as adamant as they could be. The same way as Catholics do not shy away from proclaiming the sanctity of life, as absurd as this might sound to many of us, so the unions should proudly say, we believe in mediocrity, we call it by that name and we deserve to be protected. Of course this is a very naïve wish, but if we stop to consider it, why should it be? Mediocrity is not necessarily negative, it is simply the undisputed wish to forfeit the leading position in the race. Again, what is wrong with that? The European Union in this as well is the perfect theater to reach some sort of conclusion once and for all: with a blend of protectionism, market economy and, with enlargement, a form of mini globalization, why shouldn't we be able to say what we really think and want?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Barney's version and names in fiction

I just finished reading Richler's Barney's version. I started thinking about memory, Proust and the role of names in fiction. I noticed that the main characters of many recent novels are quite similar: Mickey Sabbath, Barney, the narrator of Boyd's Any human heart, the hero of Lodge's Therapy (I do not recollect their actual names), Nathan Zuckerman, they all have in common a penchant for the nostalgic remembering centered on the little things of the 50s, with a style not dissimilar from Woody Allen's Radio Days. The memories are, in the usual ways, triggered from today's events but the flashback itself seems to be simply shown, lacking, probably intentionally, further depth and analysis.

What sets apart Barney's situation (of course there are countless other differences) is an attention to a type of detail that interested Proust himself. (A small point: when he sees his school teacher, the one he used to fantasize about protesting with the other octogenarians in the street, I cannot but think that this type of grotesque facing the changing of things, is only a cruder and more modern version of Proust attending the final ball chez les Guermantes, where everybody is on stilts and wearing masques. Whereas the ball is what pushes Proust to write, Barney is set to forget forever.) One is for example names and their immense power. He calls the Second Mrs. Panofsky by her first name only once and this reminds me of the similar fact that in the entire Recherche only once we are told how to pronounce Swan (it is so veiled that I forgot whether everyone thinks it is to be pronounced ``suan'' and it is ``svan'' instead or vice versa). This is in clear contrast to the fact that the name Miriam appears over and over again. For someone that it is about to forget everything because of Alzheimer it is quite telling.

The name, as obvious as it might sound, is what we associate to objects, places and people: if the name is lost, not mentioned, changed, the link is altered. At this point one cannot avoid mentioning Proust's long chapter on the name of places, when looking at a map he notices how the names of villages in Normandy have changed in time: this is the ultimate memory challenge, a present event can trigger you to remember a past place, but if the name is changed, you lost the link. Can one actually say that the place is the same? No. (Which is the same reason why post colonial governments changed as many names as they could. The retired colonel that in his terraced house remembers fondly the old days is robbed of his memory, because Madras is no longer called like that. That place no longer exists.)

The same could be said for the opposite, the overabundance. A great example is given by the use in One hundred years of solitude of the same names for many members of the family through the generations. Since their actions and their sins often overlap in the memory they might as well have the same name, it is almost as if it is the action assigning the name and not a simple birth accident. (Of course the opposite is also true, because of a name a person is forced to commit the actions associated to that name. The situation here is more subtle than a simple Fate related issue, because the place where all the actions take place is first and foremost in a person's memory: one could almost argue that in this case the filing method of the character's mind is very simple, to a name it can only associate one action.)

Something similar happens in two other great novels which, I must admit my search has been rather superficial, have not been associated to each other at all or at least as much as their striking similarities would call for. I am referring to Wuthering heights and The sound and the fury where the names Catherine and Quentin respectively are used throughout the generations. Quentin in particular is a name that creates an action: the younger Quentin is not the product of incest, but the name itself could hint otherwise.

I remember reading in a book by David Lodge called The art of fiction (or something of the sort), that when writing fiction one cannot invent fictitious characters or places and then, within the same opus, mention the real characters or places the fictitious ones were modeled after. He then brings forward the example of Thomas Hardy: in his novels, next to Christminster, we could never see mentioned Oxford (or, understandably, Cambridge). I believe the fact that in Proust we can have Bergotte and at the same time Bergson, Elstir and at the same time Monet, Vinteuil and at the same time Debussy (or Ravel), does not go against such principle. First and trivially, each fictitious character mentioned above is modeled after the real character, but only up to a certain point: other real characters are involved in the creation. Second, by violating the rule (if we can define it as such), Proust firmly takes the position of in between reality and fiction. Does it really matter who we are talking about?

This brings me to that scene that for me represents the essence of the Recherche: at the very beginning we see Odette and Charlus next to a fence in Combrai and we do not know anything about them. We can picture the situation as that of an old man and a beautiful woman in the dying sun of the french countryside; the same light at the horizon that is gently blinding us, however, seems to change in the proustian kaleidoscope and years later in the story (and, for some of us, in our reading) we almost do not recognize the same persons: however a part of Odette is certainly that woman in the sunset, the same way as inside the horrible Charlus, we can find the old gentleman, the affable Palamede, that we spotted next to the fence. Can't this be expressed perfectly by mentioning at the same time Bergson and Bergotte?

Friday, June 17, 2005


I came to bury amateurism not to praise it. Our world is nowadays the domain of the professional armed with his most powerful weapon: jargon. The reason for this could be the great number of us (intra human competition) or the fact that we have progressed so much that the depth one can reach in any one topic is such as to prevent us from going over to another depth. Whatever the reason, amateurs are a dying breed and English the only language in which the term itself has a little positive connotation left. As I said jargon is the weapon of the professional: weary of the competition the amateur might represent, particularly in such fields as humanities where it is only intelligence that separates the worthy from the quack, the professional shields his work with all sort of theories, isms beginning with the pre and more than often with post. You might have a great comment on Mansfield Park, but if you don't present it through the prisms of gender studies it will only be sneered at. To prove my point there is a great number of true masterpieces ranging from The civilization of the renaissance in Italy to Gombrich's Story of Art that are completely jargon free.
These little writings of mine are a cry of resistance, the wish of an intelligent person to be able to think (that is the key, a great number of people just talk) and after careful consideration express his views. By education I am a scientist, a theoretical physicist, the only field where one has to be a professional; I wish we would go back to the days of the renaissance where scientist were the real artists and thinkers. That is of course impossible and I would be the first to criticize so much that was wrong with the scientific thought of those days, but it is only a wish.
Let the symposium begin.