Voice from the Commonwealth
Commentary, World Views and Occasional Rants from a small 'l' libertarian in Massachussetts

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen." - Samuel Adams

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Interesting interview with French philosopher André Glucksmann.

Andre Glücksmann: In Dostoïevski à Manhattan I pose a philosophical question: what is the ‘idea’, the characteristic form of modern terrorism? And my answer is: nihilism.

Socrates asked: what do a beautiful woman, a beautiful vase and a beautiful bed have in common? His answer: the idea of beauty. My question is: what do extremist ideologies like the communism or Nazism of yesteryear and the Islamism of today have in common? After all, they support ostensibly very different ideals – the superior race, mankind united in socialism, the community of Muslim believers (the Umma). Tomorrow, it could be altogether different ideals: some theological, some scientific, others racist. But the common characteristic is nihilism.

The root element is the attitude that anything goes, particularly when with regard to ordinary people: I can do whatever I want, without scruples. Goehring put it like this: my consciousness is Adolf Hitler. Bolsheviks said: man is made of iron. And the Islamists whom I visited in Algeria said that you have the right to kill little Muslim children, in order to save them.

LG/JH: Nevertheless, for a long time now, Germany and France have shied away from taking on any responsibility in such situations. They have delayed it as long as possible. And even now, it seems that Europe only wants to safeguard the relative stability that we have achieved in the last fifty years. Everything which falls outside these boundaries, like Chechnya or the Middle East, really shouldn’t bother us.

AG: Yes, exactly: but this is wrong. This is exactly the complacency, the crime of complacency, which once made Hitler possible. This complacency has cost us about 50 million lives. It also worked well for Stalin. ‘Better red than dead!’ Pacifism is a kind of complacency. And this complacency continues with Milosevic, with terrorism, with Saddam Hussein; people just want to sleep.

This is nowhere more beautifully invoked than in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, where the protagonists all live together on an old estate, and nobody cares at all about what might happen, even when they already hear the trees falling. (I had just read the play when they showed the twin towers in Manhattan collapsing on television). The equivalent today is the silence that greeted the odd intellectual who drew attention to Afghanistan, Chechnya, or Kosovo. Nobody wanted to listen; people turn away as from the bearers of ill tidings.

But in the end, the reality principle will catch up with us. We believe that we can live in a world where there are only little wars in the peripheries, the suburbs, ‘low-intensity conflicts’, as the political strategists like to call them. When Ahmed Shah Massoud, Afghan leader of the Northern Alliance and enemy of the Taliban, came to Paris four months before his assassination on 9 September 2001, only a small circle of perhaps five or six intellectuals met him. None of our ministers could find the time; only Nicole Fontaine, the president of the European Parliament, came.

When the twin towers fell the day after Massoud’s murder, I told myself, “Maybe now men will learn that what happens to women in distant Afghanistan should also be of interest to the people in New York. If Massoud and his troops had gone into Kabul earlier, the twin towers might not have been destroyed”.

But I misjudged mankind’s need to sleep. And now we are saying that this only happens to the Americans, not to Europe. But the first time it nearly happened was in Europe. In 1994, a plane was hijacked in North Africa and landed in Marseille. The hijackers had wanted to crash the plane above Paris. But these GIA hijackers (Groupe Islamiste Algérien), who were also in some kind of contact with bin Laden, did not know how to fly a plane. That is how the pilots managed to bring the plane to Marseille. For their part, the hijackers clearly learnt from this that they have to be able to fly planes themselves. They have learnt their lesson. But we, we have learnt nothing at all.

LG/JH: What was your response to the French government’s thinking on the Gulf conflict and their strict ‘no’ to a forceful removal of Saddam Hussein?

AG: I am in a minority on this, and not for the first time. When I spoke up in leftist circles about Solzhenitsyn I was regarded as some kind of devil. When I supported the boat people, it was scandalous. And when it came to Milosevic in 1991, just four of us in France said we have to finish with Milosevic; and if this is possible by peaceful means, good, if not, then by force. But they waited for another eight years before taking action and that cost 200,000 lives. In the beginning you are in the minority, but in the end there is the reality principle.

I have discussed these problems a lot with Joschka Fischer whom I have known since 1968. We became friends because when I supported Solzhenitsyn, he and Daniel Cohn-Bendit agreed with that position, and criticised Russia. Even though they didn’t endorse my criticism of Marxism, at least they understood it.

In these pacifist times, we have had long debates in Die Zeit. Joschka Fischer did not agree with me for a long time. In the end he conceded that after Srebrenica there is something worse than war, and that is Auschwitz. What I cannot now understand is how he has turned into a pacifist once again in the face of Saddam Hussein – who is much worse, bloodier and more dangerous than Milosevic, and who has gassed people, partly with German gas.

LG/JH: Maybe Germany and France are so opposed to war because of the war-torn history they have shared. Can’t you accept that this is also part of the common inheritance of European humanism? The loathing of war is understandable after all, isn’t it?

AG: Of course everything can be understood. Nobody wants war, me included. The question is, is there something worse than war?

I have been answering ‘yes’ for years. One thing that is worse than war is genocide – that is, the extinction of a whole people. Many people said this before Auschwitz. In Greek tragedy, it is revealed in the destruction of Troy. This is indeed the horizon of western history.

That is why I don’t believe that the refusal to take part in a war against Saddam should be seen as an expression of humanism, but of a blindness that exists not only in Europe, but in all civilisations. We all want to live peacefully, oblivious and happy. That wish already existed in ancient Athens, and there is nothing wrong with it as such, except that it is not very realistic.

LG/JH: Do you think France will stick to its opposition against the US?

AG: Longer than in Germany. Here in our country, the rivalry with America is more prominent. But at the moment, the people in the street are only asking themselves, how can we stand up against Bush? Saddam Hussein doesn’t come into the equation, and that is where my whole objection lies. Because the issue here is actually Saddam.

Bush is a challenge for American democracy; Aznar, the challenge for Spanish democracy. Why are there fewer protestors in France than in Spain, England or Italy? Because in Italy they fight Berlusconi, in Britain they fight Blair – and in France they fight nobody.

But the overriding question remains: what about Saddam Hussein? If I may be a little moralistic here: I could not look at myself in the mirror if Saddam Hussein were still in power because I have been to a demonstration against Bush, and as a result, the people in Iraq had to live in this totalitarian regime for another twenty years.

< email | 4/01/2003 10:14:00 PM | link

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