Liberal Democracy Doesn’t Fall from the Sky


by Alexander Görlach [translated from the German original published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, December 17th, 2017]
 
The West appears to face its end. After seventy years of liberal hegemony, the opposition carries the day in countless places. This opposition stands in stark denial of the core principles of citizenship and social liberties which the West brought: tolerance of religious minorities, equality of men and women, free speech, and openness to the variance of life-paths. Regarding the relations between peoples and nations, it’s “us first” again – from the US to Catalonia. Cosmopolitan thinking, which thinks of politics as a solution to global quests, is ridiculed. 
 
Narcissism returns to the grand stage of international politics: the appraisal of the self at the peril of the other. The Western model – secular liberal democracy – functioned in the exact opposite way: a democracy that derives the general well being from the liberties of its minorities. It is a community that strives to enable participation and welfare the broadest possible group. This order ultimately realizes the utopia of equality, liberty and brotherhood by combining the political with both economic and welfare metrics. 
 
A liberal democracy can only exist where schools and universities are open to everyone. It can only exist where social pathologies are countered with unemployment welfare, statutory accident insurance, health care, and pensions – for all. Liberal democracy doesn’t just fall from the sky; it is the result of equal living conditions for all those participating in it. The middle-class societies of the West are its perfect breeding ground. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: where there’s enough to eat, there’s time to think about morality. 
 
Civil liberties only enter conscious thought where education welfare and affluence offer it a breeding ground. That’s why the United States, in its rebuilding strategy after World War II ,prioritized economic projects that overcame the differences of the past – both in Europe and the Pacific Rim. The susceptibility to demagogic rhetoric decreases with affluence. This also explains why The People’s Republic of China strengthens its grip on society at the very moment a well-situated middle class establishes itself. Beijing learned its lessons from the West’s success story. 
 
In the countries of Europe and the United States, which make up the West as we know it, the liberal model isn’t yet fighting one-party systems and autocrats. Instead, it’s battling with a perceived unlinking of economic and political participation. If the middle class isn’t growing anymore, if savings pay no interest anymore, and if the access to education is increasingly hard, then this middle-class loses faith in liberal democracy. 
 
That’s why calls for a strong leader are audible in almost every country of the western world. And it’s the reason, too, why minorities and Muslims are demonized and declared to be the root of all evil – past, present, and future. In Germany, for example, supporters of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Pegida claim in surveys that while they’re content with their present situation, they fear a bleak future of mass immigration. 
 
In the internet age, the facilities for political participation have substantially increased in number. That doesn’t apply to the possibilities of profiting economically from these new developments. The criticism aims at the political system but means the financial-economic sector. During the summer of 2011, Thatcher biographer Charles Moore and German intellectual Frank Schirrmacher began a public discussion on the question of whether the Left might have been right with its criticism of financial capitalism. 
 
The conservatives, argued Schirrmacher, had entrusted the financial liberals with their values and ever since waited for the dividend – without success, as Schirrmacher concludes. That’s how both the conservatives, which understood themselves as patriotic cosmopolitans, and the social-democrats, who considered themselves an international alliance, stumbled into a crisis created by what is now labelled neoliberalism. 
 
The world, globalized by the West, holds both blessing and curse. Blessing, because it realized the cosmopolitan vision of classical antiquity by enforcing free movement of persons and ideas. Curse, because free-flowing capital doesn’t benefit the many, but the few – contrary to knowledge. 
 
The result is a divide between expectations and unfulfilled hopes. This dialectic of the liberal world is a re-issue of the dialectic of enlightenment. Curse and blessing are still intertwined in political consciousness. That explains why citizens are willing to protest against refugees with a smartphone, but not when the Panama or Paradise Papers reveal how the most affluent abuse financial globalization to avoid their duties to the welfare state. 
 
European modernity, with its pursuit of enlightenment and development, got the ball rolling. It alone can reconcile the quarreling spirits that it conjured up. To do so, the West has to reappraise its origin: Christian humanism with its emphasis on humankind as an end in itself. As the Christian theologian argues, man is the axis of salvation. The world, in which man finds himself has to befit his proportions and remain intelligible and comprehensible to him in relation to the self.    
 
In the classical sense, this certainly does not imply that human beings of foreign origin, language or religions are perceived as beyond the bounds of his proportions. Instead, cosmopolitanism argues that the rulebook of the world applies equally to all because all are equal. The first cosmopolitans, by name and conviction, were philosophers of Athens (and later Rome). To them, it meant an empathetic basis for thinking and acting that would reveal the whole world in us and our actions. Only in this way can the gaze, in a next step of abstraction, direct itself to the world beyond the city walls. 
 
When, on Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 crew first transmitted a photograph of the Earth from outer space, the dream of the ancient European cosmopolitans was about to be fulfilled. Doesn’t this planet look too vulnerable, from up there – sub specie aeternitatis – for its inhabitants to be divided over trivialities such as race, gender and language? The photograph, titled “Earthrise” inspired the peace and environmental movement alike. 
 
Today, the isolationist movements in all parts of the world point to the opposite direction, into an age of nationalism and totalitarianism that could be termed ‘second middle age’. To the European, accustomed to vicissitudes of life, the relapse into barbarism seems undeniable and fatal. But it isn’t. He ought, instead, to go into battle and missionary mode and offer to humankind what has always been in its nature: a political and social system that builds on the connection lines of the human family, embedded in a shared sense of compassion. Above all, doing so will require a global social contract that puts an end to the rule of capital, which has enslaved man and disfigured his soul for far too long. 
 
Professor Alexander Görlach is an affiliate of the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy program and a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also a fellow to the Center for the Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK. He holds PhDs in linguistics and comparative religion and is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com. This article represents his views alone, not those of the FDR Foundation or other institutions.

The Disinformation Vaccination


By Nina Jankowicz, in “The Wilson Quarterly”

The most illuminating conversations I’ve had about Russian disinformation have not been with ex-Cold Warriors, Russia hands, or government officials. They have been with the people that – according to many of those I just listed – are purveyors of disinformation themselves.

“I don’t believe in fighting [against] information. That’s what the communists did,” Jaroslav Plesl, the editor-in-chief of Dnes, the Czech Republic’s second-largest daily newspaper, told me in January 2017, just after the Czech government unveiled a new center to fight terrorism and so-called “hybrid threats,” including disinformation.

I caught a lot of flak for publishing a quote from that conversation in an editorial on how to fight fake news. A Czech friend in the anti-disinformation field told me that while he didn’t think Plesl was on the Kremlin payroll, he might as well be, given all he and his publication do to amplify the Russian state’s narratives.

My friend won’t be happy to find out that on my last trip to Prague, I met with an editor at Parlamentní Listy, one of the most popular fringe media outlets in the country. It is often accused of having Kremlin ties. Whether or not that’s true, Jan Rychetský, the editor with whom I spoke, described his employer’s strategy very simply: “We try to speak to the people that no one from the mainstream media speaks to.” …

Read the rest of Nina Jankowicz’ piece in “The Wilson Quarterly,” here:

https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/the-disinformation-age/the-disinformation-vaccination/


How Did The WPA Change U.S. Infrastructure?


President Trump has yet to announce his trillion-dollar plan to improve infrastructure across the U.S., something he’s been talking about since the campaign.

If it happens, it could be the biggest infrastructure push in the U.S. in decades — perhaps comparable to the most famous overhaul in American history. That came eight decades ago, under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Works Progress Administration.

“It did just about everything,” Gray Brechin, geographer and founder of the online archive The Living New Deal, tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson of the WPA. “It built roads, sewers, water systems, airports, zoos, libraries, city halls. It’s all over the country. It’s just that you don’t really notice it.”

Read more at:

https://wamu.org/story/18/01/16/how-did-the-wpa-change-u-s-infrastructure-it-did-just-about-everything-scholar-says/


Who Really Designed the American Dime?


BY CHRISTINA DJOSSA
JANUARY 17, 2018

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you looked—really looked—at a dime? It is the smallest coin in U.S. circulation, so it takes a keen eye to see the very subtle “JS” just beneath Franklin D. Roosevelt’s truncated neck. These are the initials of John Sinnock, the U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver from 1925 to 1947, who is credited with sculpting the profile of the 32nd president. However, institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum—and even Roosevelt’s son—credit another sculptor with inspiring the design: Selma Burke, the illustrious Harlem Renaissance sculptor. So where is credit due? The answer is … complicated.

In 1943, 43-year-old Selma Burke won a Commission of Fine Arts competition and a rare opportunity to sculpt the president’s likeness for the new Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. Burke, renowned for her Booker T. Washington bust, ran into some problems, since she didn’t feel that photographs captured Roosevelt’s stature. So the sculptor wrote to the White House to request a live-sketch session. The administration, to her utter shock, agreed.

Read the whole article by Djossa at “Atlas Obscura”:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/who-designed-american-dime-selma-burke-franklin-roosevelt


Ending Endless Wars: The Colombian Peace Process 2/6


[Sign up here]

On February 6, Dr. Jennifer Schirmer, Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Divinity School’s Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, will host a Fireside Chat in the FDR Suite.

For the last 15 years, Jennifer directed a peace-building project in Colombia, engaging multiple sectors in dialogs preparatory to a peace agreement. Jennifer is an expert on international experiences with ceasefires, disarmament, demobilization, reintegration & reconciliation – areas we feel are critical to today’s America.

http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0e44aead29a4fa7-thefog

12 attendees only, preference given to undergraduates – please do not sign up unless you are certain to attend. If the wishlist begins to fill we’ll find a larger venue.

Date: 02/06/2018 (Tue.)

Time: 7:00pm – 8:00pm EST

Location: FDR Suite (Adams House B-17)

 

 


Face facts. The west that won the cold war no longer exists


We recommend this op-ed by Rafael Behr at “The Guardian.” We also recommend that more public figures in the West speak of liberal democracy openly and regularly.

“The US president makes a parody of the idea of the west as a beacon of moral authority. It is true that his despotic urges are hemmed by law in a way that lesser countries might not manage. But it is some downgrade of the system to boast that it might withstand assault by a venal, nepotistic maniac. America used to aim higher than constitutional kleptocracy.

“In such times it is easy to forget that the “western” model is still the best way to organise people into peaceful, prosperous societies. The benefits of liberal democracy are routinely taken for granted by people who live in one, but not by those who don’t. Millions vote with their feet, migrating across continents in search of a better life. That movement flatters the achievements of democratic societies, although our politics rarely casts it in those terms.”

Read Behr’s whole op-ed at “The Guardian”:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/10/west-cold-war-capitalism-eastern-bloc-populism