On Racism and similar matters

Nicholas D. Kristof in a recent column pointed something out which should be pointed out time and again, but strangely enough isn’t:

Much of the time, blacks have a pretty good sense of what whites think, but whites are oblivious to common black perspectives.

This is applicable not only to blacks and ‘whites’ in America, it’s of course something that describes most majority/minority constellations in the West. An interesting area where this is applicable, as Archbishop Williams has pointed out in his thoughtful speech, is in Western discussions of Islam, terrorism, the Enlightenment etc. The sheer refusal to view an issue from the minorities’ point of view has taken on an aggressive shape when it comes to talking about Muslims.

The passive ‘not listening’ has slowly but surely turned into an aggressive droning on and on over increasingly loud voices of protest. This is not simply speaking: it’s preaching. It’s applying ideas such as ‘secularism’, freedom of the press, etc., which could be applied to many different disquieting events, to only this single religious group: Muslims. It appears as if something needs to be talked out of existence, something so alien that the usual rational discourse doesn’t appear to be appropriate any more.

The vehemence with which this version of ‘not listening’ is carried out is shocking sometimes to the humble writer of this blog. Yes, as a reasonably well read person, one is used to racist diatribes, but the fact that, these days, these diatribes, hateful in content and righteous in tone, are coming from educated, smart persons, sends shivers down my spine. These are the people who, for better or worse, make politics. If they are conquered by hate, where is this society headed? I’m worried.

On Auden

Archbishop Rowan Williams on Auden

If I had to find one word for Auden’s poetry, it might be “satisfying” – not remotely in the sense of comfortable, but full of that sense of creative necessity that poetry conveys when it is most itself: this is how it must be said, this is (borrowing Geoffrey Hill’s language) a poetry of “atonement” where something is at the same time finished and set free in the fabric of the words.

Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist

Persons and actions of this story are invented. If the description of certain journalistic practices shows ressemblances to the practices of the Bild newspaper, that’s because these ressemblances are not intended nor accidental, they are inescapable

The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan’s novel, is, as he himself says at the back of his forgettable new book, a modern take on Böll’s Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum. And it is basically the same story. Woman fucks stranger, stranger is suspected of terrible crime, woman is suspected of being an accomplice. And I really like the Böll novel. Must be my favorite novel of his. So why was The Unknown Terrorist such a mess of a novel?

Can’t be the writing. Heinrich Böll is not a great stylist. What success his novels and stories have, style has nothing to do with that. Flanagan is, if anything, a better stylist. Much of the novel drags and much is functional at best, but there are outstanding passages as well. Can’t be the writing? Characters, maybe. That, actually, is the first problem. Although Böll’s characters are cliché characters, they need to be for the story to work in the little space that is allotted to them and Böll is a master in making even cliché come alive. Not so Flanagan. For one thing, he overdoes the cliché, adds many more layers of schlocky details. And then he just lets his characters get away with this. He doesn’t even try to make the characters believable. No Sir. When he slips his characters into the pockets of the story, he adds just the most necessary characterization. He sticks to the dolls (ironic, eh?) he constructed. Interaction between characters is unbelievable, as a rule.

But that is not his main error. The main problem with the novel is the old show-don’t-tell idea. He lets us know what people are thinking. Not just the protagonist, but also the journalist, the cops, and others. Every aspect of the story is examined and explained. It’s as if he was expecting his readers to be less smart than fourth graders. No guesswork for us. And this is where the novel goes terribly wrong. Yes, that’s tedious to read. But the political aspect of it is softened to an extent that is almost criminal. The hard criticism of mass media of Böll’s novel is softened to bad individuals who do know better but decide, greedily, to go ahead with the “story”. Whereas the only dedication of Flanagan is to David Hicks, a victim of misguided governmental policy, Böll’s reads like this:

Personen und Handlung dieser Erzählung sind frei erfunden. Sollten sich bei der Schilderung gewisser journalistischer Praktiken Ähnlichkeiten mit den Praktiken der Bild-Zeitung ergeben haben, so sind diese Ähnlichkeiten weder beabsichtigt noch zufällig, sondern unvermeidlich.

(Persons and actions of this story are invented. If the description of certain journalistic practices shows ressemblances to the practices of the Bild newspaper, that’s because these ressemblances are not intended nor accidental, they are inescapable). Lots of misguided governmental policies in his time, too. However, that’s plainly not his point. It’s about how the mass media distorts something if it conforms with certain bourgeois stereotypes.

This would have worked fine with The Unknown Terrorist, too. Slutty woman? Check. Arab terrorist? Check. Etc. And these stereotypes are seen to be at the basis of the journalist’s doing the story the way he does. However, it stops at this point. Richard Cody. And he does know better, but his greed for money and fame blinds him. Böll exposed the stereotypes that govern the press. Maybe a ‘real’ Richard Cody would not need the incentive of greed. The stereotypes alone are more than enough. This would have made an incisive commentary on the state of our nations. Look at the inane and inherently racist coverage of the remarks of Archbishop Williams, or check out the coverage in Danish newspapers of the alleged plot to kill the damn cartoonist. Or German newspapers covering that. Hell, mainstream coverage of muslims by privately owned media. Daily Express, anyone? Henryk M. Broder? Broder writes the stories Cody would write had he Broder’s erudition or style. Or check out how much of a deal it is that a photograph was published with Barack Hussein Obama wearing a turban.

No, The Unknown Terrorist is not tidy nor subtle. It doesn’t have to. It’s an angry book, wearing its moral indignation on its sleeve. But it is on this account, the political sphere, that it fails first and foremost. It attacks a government who uses a Patriot Act-like legislation to exert pressure on people. But the main protagonist’s life is not destroyed by that. It’s destroyed the hateful discourse taken up and whipped up by the press. Böll’s novel got him into a pickle with the press which launched a spite-and hateful campaign against the little indignant writer, a campaign that lasted years. No such chance with Flanagan, I presume. The boring little antepodean shit.

Intellektuelle Bankrotterklärung: Broder, die Zeit und andere

Ich schreibe gerade einen englischen post über den Archbishop von Canterbury und seinen Vortrag über die Sharia. Aber eine deutschssprachige Anmerkung habe ich zuerst: mal abgesehen davon, daß die SPON-Berichterstattung gewohnt tendenziös und halbgar ist, toppt Broder das alles natürlich wieder einmal, indem er nicht nur nichts verstanden hat, sondern sich auch nicht die Mühe gegeben hat, sich zu informieren. Ein Beispiel:

Nur irrt sich der Bischof, wenn er glaubt, man könne eine Gesellschaft wie eine Betriebskantine organisieren, deren Benutzer die Wahl zwischen einem Fleischgericht und einen vegetarischen Menü haben. Ein wenig Scharia kann es genauso wenig geben wie ein wenig Schwangerschaft. Die Scharia regelt das ganze Leben, wer sie nur in Teilen übernehmen will, hat von der Zwangsläufigkeit, die ihr innewohnt, keine Ahnung. Es ist, als würde man in einem Freibad das Nacktbaden unter der Bedingung erlauben, dass jeder Besucher darüber entscheiden darf, welches Kleidungsstück er ablegen mag. […]

Da ein Teil der Migranten nicht willens oder nicht in der Lage ist, die Regeln der Gesellschaft anzunehmen, soll die Gesellschaft die Regeln der Migranten übernehmen. So kann “Integration” auch definiert werden – als ein Auftrag an die Mehrheit, sich der Minderheit anzupassen.

Wie hier nachzulesen ist, liegt Broder in so ziemlich jedem Detail daneben. Weder hat der verstanden, was Dr. Williams mit der Scharia meint, noch was für eine Art rechtliches Modell (das in britischer Jurisdiktion übrigens längst möglich ist und auch durchgeführt wird) sich der Erzbischof vorgestellt hat, und vor allem nicht, daß Dr. Williams die Einwände kennt und sie sorgfältig und nachdenklich bespricht. Er nennt Bedingungen, die einzuhalten die einzige Möglichkeit sind, solch eine Änderungen in der britischen Jurisprudenz einzuführen. Entsprechend wäre nach des Bischofs Plan keine einzige der von Broder aufgeführten “Schreckensszenarien” nach des Bischofs Plänen überhaupt möglich.

Wogegen argumentiert Broder also? Der Schlüssel liegt in seinem Bestehen auf dem Ausdruck “Migrant”. Dr. Williams, der durchaus problematische Meinungen vertritt, seit er Erzbischof ist, sieht, daß es hier darum geht, daß man ganze Gemeinden von Staatsbürgern hat, die nicht vom System erfaßt werden. Der Grund dafür ist unerheblich. Denn mit diesem Problem gilt es umzugehen. Herr Broder jedoch, der den gemeinen Moslem offensichtlich nach wie vor als Fremdkörper im Land begreift, kann das nicht verstehen, oder er will es nicht. Drum bläst er ins selbe Horn wie der rechte Flügel der CDU/CSU, die NPD und andere nette Parteien. Man möchte Broder immer wieder schütteln, bis er versteht, was er sagt, wenn er das Wort “Aufklärung” in den Mund nimmt, aber da ist wohl sowohl Hopfen als auch Malz verloren. Söder bringe ich Vernunft auch nicht mehr bei.

Und das Traurigste ist, daß bei dieser, na, man möchte fast: Kampagne sagen, auch die Presse hübsch mitmischt. So wie die Zeit, deren Titelbild unlängst übrigens wieder sehr *hust* hübsch war. In einem Kommentar war sie, im Gegensatz zu Broder, aber wenigstens ehrlich und gab zu, die Rede nicht verstanden zu haben (wobei ich bezweifle, daß sie sie gelesen hat):

Der Sinn des Vortrags, den er vergangene Woche vor 1000 Juristen hielt, erschließt sich selbst nach sorgfältiger Lektüre nur schwer.

Das hielt sie aber nicht davon ab, die Rede aufgrund zweier Sätze zu kritisieren, die “an Klarheit nchts übrig ließen”, die sie aber offensichtlich schlicht und ergreifend nicht verstanden hat:

Die Übernahme von Elementen der Scharia in britisches Recht bezeichnete Williams als “unvermeidlich”. Auch nannte er die Position, ein Rechtssystem für alle verbindlich zu erklären, “ein bisschen gefährlich”.

Peinlich, da die ZEIT sich auf den Vortrag bezieht. In einem am selben Tag gegebenen Interview drückte Dr. Williams sich weniger sorgfältig aus, aber das ist hier ja unerheblich. Im Vortrag sagte er erstens nicht, es IST unvermeidlich, sondern es SCHEINT unvermeidlich. Und zweitens sagte er das nicht absolut, sondern er formulierte es als teil einer wenn…dann Konstruktion. ‘Wenn wir sozialen Frieden wollen, dann scheint es unvermeidbar,…’

Das Verhalten der ZEIT und Broders in diesem Disput ist nichts weiter als eine weitere intellektuelle Bankrotterklärung. Hurra wir kapitulieren? Sicher. Vor der Vernunft, soweit es die Zeit und Broder betrifft. Für eine offene Gesellschaft ist dieser dem Bürgertum ins Ohr geträufelte Hass reines Gift.

A Moment of Reason: On Archbishop Williams’ lecture on jurisprudence

[I thought of doing an longish explanation of the Archbishop’s speech, but in the end I scrapped that post and decided to let his words mostly speak for themselves, with a slightly critical remark at the end]

The Archbishop of Canterbury held an interesting speech on February 7, 2008, which provoked an incredible backlash by the usual islamophobic suspects and many others. People, that’s my guess, largely didn’t read a transcript of the speech or at least listen to the damn thing at least once or twice before lashing out at his alleged endorsement of an introduction of Sharia (read: multiple wives, wivebeating, female genital mutilation, honour killings, ah, you know the drill) into British law.

As always, one should be wary reading such driveling assessments of vaguely pro-Islamic persons. Experience should teach one as much. But, upon reading the transcript, I was really shocked, because the Archbishop’s speech was considerate and thoughtful. Not only did he explain what he meant by Sharia:

something that has to be ‘actualized’, not a ready-made system. If shar’ designates the essence of the revealed Law, sharia is the practice of actualizing and applying it; […] there is no single code that can be identified as ‘the’ sharia

he also explained how in his and other theoreticians’ view, “law” as in “British law” should be understood, and what problems arise in connection with the current interpretation of it: “

If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour […] it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process (or indeed to receive their communication), and so, on at least one kind of legal theory […], fails in one of its purposes.

This is, in a nutshell, where he’s heading. The law should not exclude whole communities from public communication. There is a disadvantage that these communities have, as far as power or status is concerned, and secular courts, which do not consider some communities’ “rationale for behaviour” will alienate these communities further:

a communal/religious nomos, to borrow Shachar’s vocabulary, has to think through the risks of alienating its people by inflexible or over-restrictive applications of traditional law, and a universalist Enlightenment system has to weigh the possible consequences of ghettoising and effectively disenfranchising a minority, at real cost to overall social cohesion and creativity.

Look close. Here, as everywhere else in the lecture, he tells us that we as a society may have to choose between one and the other. Do we want to have “social cohesion” or do we want to eject these communities from our countries? Because that’s the choice really. A ghettoised minority is likely to become more and more radical. Here in Germany that’s remarkably obvious. Driving these communities out might be, in a few decades, the only choice left. Plus, it’s possible that the imbalance of power and status has had a hand in creating these communities in the first place. We know how these things happen, there are multiple studies showing how communities and images are created and dissolved, one of the most readable accounts being Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness

However, in discussions with friends I usually, at one point or other, hear the word “enlightenment” and the phrase “the law is the law”. That the uncritical use of both these terms can be problematic is adressed by Dr. Williams as well: “

So much of our thinking in the modern world, dominated by European assumptions about universal rights, rests, surely, on the basis that the law is the law; […] so that recognition of corporate identities or, more seriously, of supplementary jurisdictions is simply incoherent if we want to preserve the great political and social advances of Western legality.
There is a bit of a risk here in the way we sometimes talk about the universal vision of post-Enlightenment politics. The great protest of the Enlightenment was against authority that appealed only to tradition and refused to justify itself by other criteria […]. The most positive aspect of this moment in our cultural history was its focus on equal levels of accountability for all and equal levels of access for all to legal process. […] But this set of considerations alone is not adequate to deal with the realities of complex societies: […] Where this has been enforced, it has proved a weak vehicle for the life of a society and has often brought violent injustice in its wake.

So far we have only looked at Dr. Williams’ criticism of the jurisprudence as it is practiced and of the ideologies that support said practice. What, we might ask, about the dangers of introducing what he calls “supplementary jurisdiction”? He does see these dangers, especially

the effect of reinforcing […] some of the most repressive or retrograde elements.

He talks amply about the

risks of any model that ends up ‘franchising’ a non-state jurisdiction so as to reinforce its most problematic features and further disadvantage its weakest members.

He makes clear that however this supplementary jurisdiction might look like in practice, it cannot be allowed to become a “communal legal structure which can only be avoided by deciding to leave the community altogether”. The fact that he emphasizes what he calls “ground rules”, together with the fact that he continually speaks rather vaguely of the practicality of his propositions (“if”, “appears”, “seems”, see also the log’s take on this), may mean that the system he envisions may never see the light of day.

However, the practicality of Dr. Williams’ proposals presupposes the universal principle that he, by the way, explains thusly:

‘human dignity as such’ – a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group.

This presupposition hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Archbishop who goes on to write ”

if my analysis is right, the sort of foundation I have sketched for a universal principle of legal right requires both a certain valuation of the human as such and a conviction that the human subject is always endowed with some degree of freedom over against any and every actual system of human social life.

(something which I would deny emphatically), and concludes this thought by saying that

both of these things are historically rooted in Christian theology.

Indeed, indeed it is. It is fundamentally dishonest of muslim-bashing commentators to praise the judeochristian tradition and denounce the bishop because of his alleged break with it, when all he does is abide most closely by exactly that tradition.

Personally, I believe that this is exactly where his theory goes wrong. I think that, by giving communities as ideologically bound as religious communities usually are, the “freedom” to adhere to their religious/cultural principles, by giving them the freedom of choice, you take away or deny them the freedom to adhere to secular laws, especially the weaker parts of the community. I believe that a religious culture is like a dangerous trap. An insignificant example is Bavaria in Germany, where, even after the German supreme court has ordered the state to take down the crosses in classrooms if even a single student complains, few crosses have been taken down, because even those who feel uncomfortable are pressured into silence. And this is a small, small example. Nobody gets hurt. Can the government run the risk of intoducing legislation that leads to even a single person being severely disadvantaged just because he or she is caught in the religious trap? And we don’t even have to imply pressure from the community. Far from being in “a conscious relation with God”, as Dr. Williams asserts, devout people, in any religion, are, well, devout, which means that they are, as Merriam-Webster’s has it “ardently dedicated and loyal”. There is room for freedom there but not enough, possibly, to justify such a legislation.

Excuse me for indulging in my dislike for religion. That was highly polemic and even wrong. For one thing, secular ideologies don’t leave their own devout followers more wriggle room, as the maddening attacks on Dr. Williams (or Richard Dawkins’ or Christopher Hitchens’ recent writings, for that matter) demonstrated many times over. Second, in view of the fact that I approve of Dr. Williams’ analysis of the problem, my approach was not very constructive. He says, correctly, that “

the important springs of moral vision in a society will be in those areas which a systematic abstract universalism regards as ‘private’ – in religion […], but also in custom and habit.

No, I am with Nagel and his socks, I don’t think that being religious and being moral is correlated. But the fact remains that moral vision emerges from that which is private, and we as a society cannot afford to shut out sizable minorities and their private lives. The fact that religion plays a vastly more important role in these communities is something that we have to come to terms with. IF we want a harmonious society. If we want disadvantaged minorities to be given a voice. For as long as we silently suppose law to “of course” be just for everybody, we are effectively silencing those communities who have cultural loyalties which sometimes clash with their loyalties as citizens.

Coming to terms with that does not mean introducing “special legislation”. But these minorities are already seeking religious advice. Why not incorporate that into the practice of law we have. It is a dangerous and tough task but a necessary one. Turning away from these communities and denouncing them as a whole is not helpful, nor is turning away from them in a gesture of tolerance. As Dr. Williams said:

It is always easy to take refuge in some form of positivism

and indeed it is, especially so-called sceptics can be found in hiding whenever asked to engage with religion. Supplementary jurisdiction might not be the best way to solve our problems (if it is not, the Archbishop himself provides the reasons why it may not be, this cannot be stressed enough, as he tells us what the precondition to such a solution would be.) , but solve them we must. And we must be thankful for the likes of Dr. Williams for pointing them out the way he did.