Susan Neimann - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview with the moral philosopher.

Click here to see the interview as it appeared in this week's magazine.

Where is home, as an American living in Berlin?

I think everybody who has lived and worked in more than one country is going to wind up feeling permanently torn, feeling no place is entirely home. It's both a gain and a loss.

When I'm in the States, people tell me that I'm quite Europeanised; when I'm in Europe, there are qualities of mine that people rightly see as American. I think Europe and the US both have great, great strengths in different ways, and I think it would be marvellous if we could put them together.

What does Europe have? And what about the States?
I'll give you one example -- it's quite general, but I think it's quite important. Europe has social democracy. Even in its conservatively governed countries, Europe has the institutions of a social democracy that I believe are necessary for genuine democracy to function.

At the same time, in many places the government makes many people feel that they can't innovate, that they don't want to take individual responsibility for their lives -- that various things, from politics to culture, are really the government's business.

What you saw on the Obama campaign, for example, was a wonderful grass-roots effort. It's hard to imagine that happening in European politics. I know a lot of European people have been saying, "Where's our Obama?" And it's true that he is an extraordinary leader. But he also inspired a very widespread popular movement -- everybody from construction workers to psychiatrists. People gave huge amounts; 14 million gave money. It's hard to imagine something like that happening in Europe.

Twenty years ago you wrote about Jewish life in Germany. How have things changed?
It's complicated. Things have got much better, Berlin has gotten much more international. There is much less racism than when I first came.
The red-green government, which is no longer in power, took major steps to change things. First of all they changed the immigration laws. Second, it was very clear that Joschka Fischer in particular, but also Gerhard Schröder, were genuinely involved in the movement that took place in the late Sixties in Germany: families were torn up as young people realised they had to repudiate their parents and their teachers in some sense, because so many of them had been Nazis, or had co-operated with them.

But the Christian Democrats . . . that was a big step which, of course, the Christian Democrats cannot take. They're not going to do anything overtly racist or anti-Semitic: too deep a part of German self-understanding is that it has to be crucially involved in the state of Israel, whatever Israel does. There are many activists in Israel who feel that the current German government should be more critical of the Israeli government, and I rather agree. But you still have enormous resentment.

The biggest problem with the Christian Democrats is that their base is extremely conservative. They have never come close to repudiating Konrad Adenauer [the CDU founder]. He was not specifically a Nazi, but he attacked Willy Brandt [the SPD postwar German chancellor] many, many times for having emigrated [to Norway in the Thirties]. And if that's your base, I don't trust you.

You still have an enormous amount of resentment in the Christian Democratic base. And one thing that I find very disturbing is an increasing tendency to compare the German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany, with the Nazis. In my view, this is absolutely outrageous, and it's motivated by two things. One is, it's a way of excusing people's parents, or in many cases now, their grandparents, because of course, "In the first instance the Wehrmacht wasn't fighting Jews, it was fighting the Russian Communists." If you can show that the Russian Communists were almost as bad as the Nazis, well, then Grandpa's more or less off the hook.

It's also a way of discrediting any form of socialism and pushing for a neoliberal economy. And this is going on right now in Brandenburg, the state where I work -- the Christian Democrats are trying to get the government to fall because it's more left-wing than they would like.
So I'm concerned. The politics of memory has a very different shape now, but there are still major issues.

In your new book, Moral Clarity, you say you are driven more by hope than by anger. What makes you angry and what gives you hope?
Well, Moral Clarity combines two projects. One I began a long time ago -- it was going to be called Enlightenment Heroes. [It's a statement of] rage and hope about the way intellectual trends have been going -- it's a pretty international trend in the past 20 years or so, of Enlightenment-bashing. I was tired of the way "hero" has become a suspect word.

The second part began after George W Bush was re-elected in 2004. I was enraged that the most immoral regime in US history was claiming moral clarity, when everything it did was a travesty of both words: neither moral nor clear. I felt there were two things I could do as a concerned citizen. One might be to move to the Midwest, because it looked like world history was being determined by what people in the Midwest think. The other was to try to use my philosophical skills to set out what moral clarity might actually be.

So that's what I decided to do, although I did a lot of speaking in the Midwest and other places. The hope is simply to reclaim moral concepts for progressive forces. I think President Obama, given an almost insoluble set of problems, has been doing a reasonable job.

If there is one Enlightenment value that we should adopt today, what is it?
In my book, I talk about four -- happiness, reason, reverence and hope -- all of which are needed for a robust Enlightenment, a flesh-and-blood Enlightenment committed to more than just tolerance and fairness. Those are important things, but they need to be fleshed out. If I get only one, I'd say hope. Which is not the belief that progress is necessary, only that it's possible.

Who are your own heroes?
Well, when I first set myself the task of talking about concrete living heroes, I thought, "Oh, it's way too hard." And then I realised it's only because I was thinking in the wrong kind of terms -- as if heroes have to be perfect, somehow more than human. And once I'd dropped that, I realised that several people I know personally count as heroes.

Sarah Chayes, who works in Afghanistan. David Schulman, who works in an Israeli-Palestinian peace group. Bob Moses, a civil rights hero who was a model for Obama's community organising. And Daniel Ellsberg [who leaked the Pentagon Papers, about US conduct of the Vietnam war] is the most famous of them.

But my hope is not for people to take over my heroes -- although I think they've done a lot that's valid for anybody -- but for people to think about their own heroes. There are more of them around than we tend to think.

Do you vote?
Oh yes. And I volunteered extensively on the Obama campaign. There are forms of political engagement besides voting. It's the minimum.

And you're not disappointed by Obama?
The people who talk about disappointment . . . I was at the victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago, one of the happiest nights of my life, and he said then: people are going to be disappointed when I'm not able to do all that we would like to do. At that particular moment, nobody counted on the absolute craziness of right-wing America, which has literally set out to ruin his presidency and to make sure he doesn't succeed. Millions of people in America are doing that.

People complain that he hasn't done as much as he should have in foreign policy. What exactly is he supposed to do? On one hand, Israel has the most right-wing government in its history and says, you know: "Stopping the settlements? No way!" And on the other side you have Ahmadinejad running a fraudulent election and, as far as nuclear control is concerned, saying: "Up yours." I disagree with some of the things Obama's done. I wish he had appointed different people to take care of his economic policy. But given the incredible constraints, I think he's doing all right.

What can the US public do to advance progress?
I'd like American progressives to unite in the way we did for the campaign. The right has foot soldiers. The right mobilises through fundamentalist churches; the right has various organisations that are very, very powerful.

Progressives always have a hard time in power -- we are used to criticising whoever is in power and we don't really know what to do when someone we have supported very strongly gets in. I'd also like to see Europe offer more than gestures like the Nobel Peace Prize, which didn't help Obama very much.

Instead of Nobel prizes, what should it offer?
By picking the least charismatic or forceful people it could for the EU posts, I think Europe was saying, "We don't want a role on the global stage, we want to protect our comforts." They are great comforts, but it'd be good if Europe used its strength to support a progressive line.

Afghanistan is an interesting example. The issue is not how many troops to send, or whether to send any troops, but involvement in civil society in Afghanistan, without which the whole effort is going to fail. If it were possible for the international community to take a much harder line on Hamid Karzai and his bank account, and there are suggestions for setting up systems of constraint in Afghanistan, it would be extremely helpful.

You've written about reclaiming language from the right. "Progressive" is a hotly contested word in the UK now.
It's a difficult issue. Many people on the left -- and this is an international problem -- don't actually believe in progress; they argue that every instance of progress turns out to be a form of oppression. Many progressives have turned cynical about any notion of intervening for human rights, for example.

Now it was certainly true that Bush abused that language in order to cover himself. If you violate human rights at home you certainly can't go arguing for them abroad, right? But so many progressives have let things like that turn them cynical and sour about any notion of intervening for human rights.

Yet we need to look carefully at what's hiding behind the right. There are parties in Norway, and US institutes, that are committed to neoliberal economy and call that progress. It's a hidden way of saying the only possible progress is rampant global capitalism. There's nothing progressive about that. Unless I'm mistaken, the Wall Street disaster just showed that it doesn't even work for the economy, let alone for anything else.

Was there a plan?
There were several, but most of them got overthrown. One consistent thing is that I really did always want to be a writer.

What did you dream of writing? Poetry, plays?
I've written a play. I'm working on a television project and a novel. Poetry's not my strength, particularly. Novels, plays, other things.

What would you like to forget?
Oh, lord. I'd actually like to remember more than I now remember.

Are we all doomed?
Absolutely not. Only if we doom ourselves. Only if we believe it.