Debates on Monday #19
The Holocaust remains incomprehensible in its totality. The goose steps taken towards it, while horrendous on their own, can seem less other-wordly. The photograph accompanying this article is taken in Vienna in 1938. The women are put on display on a public square, wearing a sign that says: I have been expelled from the people’s community. The young men behind the women are preparing to shave off their hair, as a crowd watches. Such displays were not uncommon. The reasons could involve being Jewish, communist, gay, lazy, or —as in this case— having sexual relations with Jews.
At a symposium on the situation of Muslims in Iceland last weekend, an Icelandic muslim woman described how, after 22 years in the country, she has recently faced repeated harassment, for wearing a hijab. Apparently, people walk up to her on the street to declare: “Go back home, we don’t want you here”, ask whether she is carrying a bomb, and so on. The woman’s ten year old daughter has also been harassed for her hijab —even asked if she is carrying a bomb in her schoolbag. And, again, so on.
The limits of debate
Some people have been debating other people. Some of those who identify as Christians, Liberals or Leftists have, more precisely, been debating those who identify as Muslims. They debate whether Muslims should be allowed to lead their lives, in Iceland, as in Norway, the UK or Germany. The underlying question is, if put to a vote, should the rest of the population favour Muslims’ existence at all, or not.
On its own, a prolonged experience of exclusion from society, being spoken of only in the third person, as if you were not there, by people who otherwise address each other as civil human beings, being recognised only as a trigger for other people’s emotive reactions, is drastic. Debating someone’s right to exist —and the right to exist here, wherever that is, always involves the right to exist at all— is at most one step removed from debating the merits of mass murder.
Which is why the first responsible response to hate-speech seems to be to ignore it: debating a person’s right to exist implies acknowledging the question as legitimate. Which it, for the record, is not.
Most of those who express a desire to exclude others from their world qualify the subject-matter by adding: “of course I do not mean peace-loving Muslims, I’m only referring to the dangerous, criminal, violent ones”. If this was meant in earnest at all, the word Muslim would not surface, and we would be having a dialogue about the fact that crimes are sometimes committed and that perhaps we should do something about that, implement the rule of Law, for example, establish a court system or bring together some sort of police force. Which, for the record, we have.
The other day, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson said that, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, he had read articles by various liberal authors, who all express concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression. Sigmundur said that his readings included articles from right-wing liberals to “liberal communists, which I didn’t even know exist”. Icelandic can be a bit ambiguous about the differences between liberal, libertarian etc, but nonetheless Sigmundur may have bumped into an article written by Slavoj Žižek for the New Statesman.
Unsurprisingly to those familiar with the Slovenian philosopher and Islandophile, Slavoj Žižek’s article claims that what is needed to avert the rise of fundamentalism is a renewed, radical, secular Left. The philosopher applies his insights in psycho-analysis to claim that the problem with those we call fundamentalists, those prone to terrorist acts, is that they are not fundamentalist enough: anyone who really believes that he/she has found the righteous path in life, Žižek argues, would not feel threatened by non-believers, but is characterised by “the absence of resentment and envy” and a “deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life”. As an example, Žižek notes that when “a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating”. The “terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists”’ problem is, says Žižek, that they are “deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the sinful life of the non-believers.”
Doesn’t the same logic apply to those “fundamentalist” defenders of liberal values who wear their ideology on the sleeve as an excuse to harass and even demand the outright exclusion of groups who supposedly hold opposing opinions? There seems to be a rather large intersection between those conservatives who, for example, condemn feminists the loudest, for making excessive demands, and those who condemn Muslims the hardest for being anti-feminist, for being too conservative etc. In both cases, although mostly confined to speech, the expressions involved tend to showcase excessive hostility, surpassing any material issue at stake by adding curse words, various means of dehumanisation, analogies to animals, references to excrement or hell, flamboyant violence as metaphor, and other signifiers to reveal factual statements as being insufficient to exhaust what is, presumably, at stake.
Let’s apply the logic of the pseudo-fundamentalist to the islamophobe, and see if it fits: whereas a convinced liberal would, upon encountering an old-school misogynistic patriarch, merely note the latter’s search for happiness as self-defeating, the pseudo-liberals’ problem is that they are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated, by the strict, traditional patriarchy they assume Muslims to uphold.
The two pseudo-fundamentalists, the Western fundamentalist and the Muslim fundamentalist, inhabit the same universe and operate according to the same logic: Secretly envying each other, they seem willing to turn the world on its head to get rid of temptation.
The Western fundamentalist is one, then, who lacks faith in his stated beliefs: he declares unqualified faith in the West precisely because he lacks the capability to articulate his serious discontents with its current predicament, or more precisely: his or her predicament within it. This lack of ability is not a private problem: language is a common good, if anything is: we face the merits of our active vocabulary, and its faults, together.
What comes after America
The Western fundamentalist, as well as the rest of us, has good reason for his doubts, no matter how inarticulate. According to the latest figures, during the last half a decade or so, the highest-income one percent of the population increased its share of the world’s properties from a total of 44% to 48%. This infamous one percent is presumed to cross the 50% threshold this year or next. 50% of all there is. This is not merely unjust, but outright crazy. If anyone would ever, in modern times, have suggested such an outcome, no one would have voted in favor to the system behind it. This remains true today: no one attempts to defend this outcome as just. Some still speak highly of the underlying apparatus, but since 2008, even such utterances have become a rarity. When was the last time you heard anyone praise global capitalism?
The machine keeps going, unloved and unsung —but we haven’t written or learned any new songs either. In a panel on “organisation”, at a conference held by the UK magazine Radical Philosophy, last weekend, one speaker proposed the Leader as an organising principle and another a network of cells. Both have, for the record, been tried, some would say to the point of exhaustion. To be fair, something possibly more novel was discussed as well, or in any case the possibility of such a thing. Still, even when it prints STERO on the cover, in large letters, the Left retains an old sound. A bit canned. Sometimes scratchy. It must stop doing that. And you, you who count on the Left for everything, should not thereby count on others to take care that it will.
“Oh and one more thing, you aren’t going to like what comes after America” wrote Cohen. 2006. And yes, the world has seen worse than capitalism. Marxists know that. While we await the next hit, frustrations are evidently growing and seeking outlet. It is imperative to oppose any sort of xenophobia, any sort of fascism, directly, when it rises. It is also, however, pretty urgent to face up to the deadly serious historical challenge beneath: to prove Cohen, on this one point, wrong.