Europe: democracy, or barbarism?

An open letter to Angela Merkel.

Dear Madam Chancellor,

Yours, more than any other country, bears the responsibility for the crimes of national socialism. Yours, more than any other country, has confronted the tasks of history and memory, providing younger generations with a keen understanding of the dangers of anti-Semitism and racism.

As we draw upon the 80th anniversary of the accession of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, you have reiterated the principles of responsibility and vigilance which have guided Germany for almost sixty years. They resound evermore in a Europe which, in recent years, has experienced a rise of racism, anti-Semitism and the far right.

All those across our continent who fight for a Europe of fraternity, who build the European identity called for by the philosopher Husserl from 1935 as the only means of overcoming the dangers of nationalism during the rise of Nazism, need your support.

The voice of Germany must be clear and audible, because people are listening. You bear the responsibility conferred on you by your influence and the place of your country’s history in that of Europe.

To move from the ethic of conviction that you proclaim to an ethic of responsibility, Germany, like all countries in the EU, must put the development of democracy, and above all the fight against racism and anti-Semitism, at the very heart of its stance. Decisions on the financial, economic and institutional problems of Europe, crucial as they are for the future of the EU, must be measured against the strength they bring to democracy in Europe. The order of priorities as it stands must be reversed, and the central question of European democracies must be thus: “How are we to give life to Europe’s project of civilisation, based on peace, democracy, equality and the priority of the collective, plural and diverse above the identity of individuals?”

In this respect, the persistence of Roma ghettos in Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the anti-Semitic murders in France, that of the Roma in Hungary and those of Turkish origin in Germany, the annual demonstration of the past SS in Latvia, the Utoya massacre in Norway, the stigmatisation of Muslims and the rise of racial discrimination are unacceptable cases, which much be denounced with vigour.

In particular, the decay of the constitutional state in Hungary and the authoritarian trend in the Orban regime must be fought with the same energy as the burial of national debt.

Above all, the policies of Germany and Europe regarding Greece will not be solved by endless austerity, which deepens every day the social hopelessness instrumentalised by the neo-Nazis, Golden Dawn.

Germany cannot disregard the development of racist and anti-Semite positions and the increase of racist murders on its shores. It cannot ignore the permissiveness of part of the political establishment towards those who have a growing influence on our continent because they are regarded as the success story of the far right in Europe, capable of combining legal and illegal actions, of being elected to Parliament and of using physical violence against immigrants in the street.

In particular, the democratic vigilance of Germany should push you to demand that Prime Minister Samaras respect his commitment to remove neo-Nazis from the Greek parliamentary delegation in the Council of Europe, which is possible, legal and a democratic necessity. Although he firmly made this commitment in December, following an exceptional mobilisation in Athens of European civilians with the support of notable intellectuals and Nobel Prise laureates such as Elie Wiesel, Bernard Kouchner, Serge Klarsfeld, Adam Michnik and Dario Fo, in January he quietly sent a delegation including the neo-Nazi Eleni Zaroulia.

Because your country has a particular responsibility in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism you cannot remain silent in the face of this inacceptable double game, which reinforces neo-Nazism, and you must demand that the Prime Minister respect his democratic commitment.

It consists in the protection of the weakest against violence on two fronts, social and racial, and in the duty of democracy to oppose its inflexible enemies. In a word, it consists in the fundamental values of Europe and of its civilising project, without which it loses sense and will fall inevitably into barbarism.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Abtan, President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement

Photograph: Getty Images

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

GEOGRAPHY PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era