Europe


CameronThis is a transcript of a tape that was obtained by the newspaper Wprost. Its origins remain mysterious.

BenSix: Hey, is that Radoslaw Sikorski over there?

BeaSeven: Which one?

BenSix: The bloke who was just sitting here. Yes, I think it is!

BeaSeven: He must have wanted a different table.

BenSix: And he looks even more like a vampire in real life. Funny, I thought I heard him mention David Cameron. He looked angry as well.

BeaSeven: Who wouldn’t?

BenSix: I suppose he must have annoyed Tusk and co. when he banged on about Polish immigrants and benefits. It was foolish when Poles claim less than almost any other demographic. Easy target I suppose.

BeaSeven: Uh huh. I think I’m going to get the fish.

BenSix: He can’t be happy with the talk of Britain leaving the EU. That would not be ideal for Poland. It has more to gain from the system than we do.

BeaSeven: But I might start with the soup. Yes, the soup looks good.

BenSix: The thing about Cameron is that he’s a natural sycophant. He has existed to suck up to bigger, richer nations in the hope that their status, and capital, rubs off on him. The irony of trying to maintain Britain’s place among the great powers in such a manner is that when he stands up for the place everyone thinks he is pathetic.

BeaSeven: What does it take to get a drink here?

BenSix: It is interesting how our two nations are at such different stages: Britain is clinging to its international relevance and Poland is trying to claim it. I don’t blame you! Anyone with Russia just a couple of doors down is going to want some muscle. But this “European” thing has limits, and if it is going to be of any use they have to be acknowledged. We have much to give each other as nations but we should do it as nations. There is insufficient commonality, in fact or mythos, to make us one unit – at all times, anyway. It is like salt and pepper, see. They can be great together but you would not package them as identical spices. If one used either with the wrong dish it could put one off both, and…

BeaSeven: Pipe down, will you? And put down the spice rack. That man in the sunglasses and baseball cap is looking agitated.

BenSix: What? Oh, sure.

BeaSeven: I thought you had a blog to stop you doing this in real life.

BenSix: Mmhmm. Did I ever tell you about the time in the restaurant in Shoreditch? Funny story. Promise not to tell anyone…

pentitoAntonio Iovine, boss of the Casalesi clan, one of the most powerful groups in the Campani mafia, the Camorra, was arrested in 2010. This month, it is claimed, he has turned state witness. This is excellent news. Iovine is believed to have been a deal-maker, integral to the Camorra domination of waste management in Naples which has led to trash filling the streets and countryside, and toxins clogging the air as it burns around the region, and is also thought to have played a significant role in its infiltration of the mainstream economy. Roberto Saviano, whose book Gomorrah brought such ruffians to the world’s attention, has greeted the news with the claim that the “earth is trembling for a large part of the business and political worlds”, for if anyone knows where skeletons are buried, it is this man.

It is speculated that Iovine feared the imposition of the 41-bis prison system. Its tough standards ban parcels, telephone contact and correspondence with other prisoners, and limit family contact to a monthly conversation through a pane of glass. Not much fun, in other words, but it is hard to sympathise with men who had no qualms about depriving others of life when they quake before the prospect of being deprived of mail. It is splendid, though, that this is enough to make them betray their cohorts.

Ever since Tommaso Buscetta began to chat with Giovanni Falcone, hardened mafiosi have been spilling their congested guts. Even a man as vicious as Giovanni “People-Slayer” Brusca, who let off the bombs that killed Falcone and had a young boy strangled and dissolved in acid, began talking after his arrest.

It is always foolish to discount organised crime but this level of backstabbing is one of several phenomena that represent great progress in the anti-mafia fight. It is of value not only for the facts that it yields but for the insecurity it breeds within the gangsters. As devoted and tenacious as a co-conspirator might seem, one can never be sure that he will not tell all in exchange for a parcel from home and a few minutes with his wife. It is hard to maintain stable institutions when such cracks run beneath them.

farageFor all of its noble implications, voting can be an undignified pursuit. If democracy was a joke, the EU elections would be its punchline. One could make an argument for the value of the union yet to maintain that it is anything but elitist, in both theory and practice, would defy the facts.

These elections appear to have been defined by one party – and, indeed, one man. I am not sure there has ever been someone who inspires so little interest in his supporters yet so much fascination in his opponents as Nigel Paul Farage. His enemies cannot get enough of him. If they are not chortling when somebody makes a “wanker” sign behind his back on film they are writing stern open letters that bang on about Nazism. Well, I am no big admirer of the gentleman. His focus on EU immigrants is rankly opportunistic and his everyman pose is somewhat irritating. Why would I want politicians to be just like me? I couldn’t run a country if my life, and 65 million others, were dependent on it.

Yet do his supporters really care about him? I’m sure they think he is a decent chap, and a stirring rhetorician, but has he addressed any adoring masses? If he were to write a manifesto, would it really sell? Have there been posters  displaying his face above captions like “hope” or “change”? If he and his band of ageing eccentrics are at number one in the polls it is not, I think, because people are admiring of the men but because they’re the only people who have echoed their opinions.

Most Britons think little of European supranationalism, and less of mass immigration, and have been angered and scared by the extent to which mainstream politicians have avoided addressing their concerns. Farage is a means through which they can express themselves. His success is an electoral candidate-shaped insult to Labour and the Coalition. Perhaps the public can be distracted by stories about his unpleasant friends, or endless photographs of him bearing unsightly expressions, but the feelings will remain. The elections are, in fact, not about him but them.

PutinLiberal interventionists have been attacking the anti-war left over their failure to protest against the Russian menacing of Ukraine. Putin would have cared even less about a few hundred boisterous eccentrics in anoraks and keffiyehs than David Cameron but this is about egos rather than actual concerns. Still, as far as I can tell both tribes have something in common: a tendency to exaggerate the importance of Western behaviour as it relates to international affairs. Britain and the US is at fault for all evils: it is just through its deeds for the leftists and its inaction for the liberals.

The idea that the West forced Putin’s hand seems contrived. It was playing with fire in its support for pro-EU and NATO tendencies in nations around Russia but those tendencies would have been powerful anyway. It might be hard for Britons to appreciate that people can be admiring of the EU but if your average Ukrainian has any idea of the development that its subsidies have been funding in Poland I can understand why they might yearn for a slice of the pie.

What, then, of the idea that Western weakness enabled Putin? I don’t understand it. Yes, it is embarrassing that Obama mocked concerns about Russia but what should he had been doing otherwise? Bush spent eight years barging into this or that country and the Russians still piled into South Ossetia. Why would invading Syria have scared them? It would have shown that America and Britain were prepared to make war on a government that posed no military threat to them. Why would this have lent seriousness to the idea that they might go to war against superpowers? This seems a bit like saying that victory against Tranmere Rovers would make Barcelona fear Manchester City. One of these is not like the other.

According to smarter people than myself, meanwhile, thoughts of trade and diplomatic freezes would not have frightened Putin. Sanctions may bite if they are imposed but the Russians seem to have gambled on their ineffectiveness.

(As mad as the idea of all-out conflict sounds, it is being considered by our commentators. Interventionists have been praising to the skies a piece by the head of Estonia’s national conservatives, which holds that “Western civilization in its decadence has reached the final stage of its degradation” and is blind to the need for “a truly uncompromising fight”. I accept, of course, that the West is in many ways decadent and depraved but why is it only legitimate to state this case when it pertains to its apparent unwillingness to go to war?)

Superpowers almost inevitably push around states that flirt with the idea of escaping their clutches – be it Guatemala or the Czech Republic – and if they want to do it they are hard to stop. There are many problems with comparisons to 1938 but one of them is that Hitler’s Germany was surrounded by nations with enough firepower to crush him like the jumped-up little pseud he was. Putin’s Russia is a large and wealthy place with enough nukes to kill us all many times over. Anybody want to try and order him around? I am sure that actions can and will be taken but the most important standard is that they should be smart, not strong. It was being smart that made Putin strong in the first place.

An addendum. There is one thing that the West deserves criticism for: its obsequiousness towards Russian billionaires. It would not surprise me if this shameless greed has led Putin to think that we are hopeless degenerates. I was reminded of the proposal to sell British visas to the highest bidder. Wealth should play a role in our criteria for accepting migrants, I think – if its investment will be of real value. This, though, appears degrading. It evokes nothing more than high class prostitution. Wealth, moreover, need not denote worth. Crooked oligarchs? Oil sheikhs? Degenerate estate entrepreneurs? Such people can devalue our culture even if they add a few pounds to our pockets.

GenderAgata Pyzik writes on the Catholic church in Poland’s campaign against what it calls “gender”: a catch-all term for liberal ideas that might include sex education, gay marriage and the idea that gender roles are social constructs to be challenged. This has been a significant issue in the country. People talk in dark, amused or bored tones about “gender”, though I am not sure that many of them have a good idea of what the darn thing means.

Nonetheless, I think Ms Pyzik overstates the extent to which this is reflective of Polish culture. God knows I am no expert on the nation that has welcomed me, and a traditionalist revival could be gathering steam, but I see little evidence of this. For all that the church is attempting to rally its flock its audience is shrinking at a considerable rate. The parliamentary group that was established to “fight gender ideologyconsists not of officials of Law and Justice, the leading conservative opposition party, but United Poland: a right-wing splinter organisation of marginal significance. Pyzik’s closing claim, meanwhile, that higher birth rates among Poles who left for Britain than stayed in their homeland shows that the “pro-family crusade is having the opposite effect” is evidence that pointing out that correlation does not equal causation can still be merited.

In arguing that Poland is going through “a sexual revolution in reverse”, Ms Pyzik does not merely overstate its conservative trends but its progressive past. Her claim that homosexuality “wasn’t penalised” in the People’s Republic is belied by the existence of Operation Hyacinth, which, in the 1980s, sought to form a database containing the names of every Polish homosexual. Many of them were subsequently interrogated by security officials.

None of this is to deny that Poles tend to have far more traditional values than other Europeans to the West. This can certainly inspire obnoxious phenomena. When I read someone like Meryl Streep, though, referenced in Pyzik’s essay, claim that she had thought Poland had “caught up with the west in a social-cultural sense” I do not think that this would be a cause for uproarious glee. Poland has a divorce rate that is far below ours, and far fewer children are born out of wedlock. While Britain bears the effects of fatherless families, meanwhile, fewer Polish migrants have to claim lone parent benefits than those Portugal, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. We are by no means ideal for imitation.

Being the subject of a hit piece by the Daily Mail must be hideous or hilarious depending on the circumstances. Niccolò Milanese, co-President of the think tank European Alternatives,A pantomime at the European Parliament in Berlin was accused of snagging tens of thousands of pounds in European Union grants to author a “‘Marxist’ manifesto for a European superstate”. Milanese replies, on Comment is Free, by saying that the manifesto is one that promotes equal rights and greater democratisation following engagement with European citizens. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, I suppose.

The “citizen’s manifesto” is an intriguing read. Focusing on progressive causes like open borders, gay rights and a basic income, it is introduced with the claim that “rather than relying on fractured national sovereignties”, “we, the people of Europe…want to be empowered to act at a transnational level”. But who does the “we” represent in such sentences? The authors were kind enough to include their methodology to allow us to judge.

The manifesto was formed through “inviting citizens” to eighteen venues in six countries for discussions of their views, before “the most active participants” were invited to another six meetings with “stakeholders, activists, practitioners [and] academics”. To be generous, let’s assume that the invitations were sent to a somewhat representative sample of Europeans. (Though the fact that one of the venues selected was Brighton makes this generous indeed.) How many people are going to take hours from their life to discuss the European Union? I think about politics far more than the average person and I have no more enthusiasm for such an event than I have for a marathon of movies by Uwe Boll. Such consultations can only ever reflect the views of an impassioned minority with marginal interests.

The authors made two further efforts to engage the public. Visitors to their website were encouraged to vote on the proposals that had emerged from the meetings. The fact that the proposal with the highest number number of votes seems to be “ban private beaches” with a whopping twelve thumbs up makes me suspect that few people happened to drop by a website on European democracy. In the end, the authors were forced to take to the streets, where two thousand Europeans were allowed to vote for one proposal that inspired them. That is about as limited a gauge of peoples’ opinions as I can imagine.

Ultimately, such consultations may produce original and intriguing ideas, but the fact that the citizen’s manifesto contains little more than brief assertions of the value of a huge range of ideas limits what chance it ever had of appealing to the brain. As they are so profoundly unrepresentative, meanwhile, they tell us almost nothing about the opinions of the public. I am interested in substantive policy proposals, and in the careful assemblage of public opinion, but I dislike the packaging of ideological ambitions in the wrapping paper of democratic legitimacy. And, for all that I am sure that Milanese and his colleagues have decent motives, this is especially true when I am being told to “get over [my] national ego” by a group whose popular pretensions cannot hide their elite status and tribal nature.

Photograph: Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

QuenelleThe French establishment faces a problem when it criticises the anti-semitic funnyman Dieudonné. He is cool. It is not. A politician like Francois Hollande is a bald, bespectacled, chubby short man with an awkward smile and a nervous manner, while a public intellectual like Bernard Henri-Levy is a foppish sexagenarian who should cover up his nipples. Dieudonné, meanwhile, looks like a cross between Richard Pryor and Father Christmas. As the censorious parties, meanwhile, Hollande and Levy seem shrill, humourless and draconian, while Dieudonné seems as if he is just trying to have some fun at the expense of the powers that be.

This is not to take the side of the Jew-baiting joker, though. Coolness, I think, is a talent that need have no correlation with admirability. Vladimir Putin is cool, but I don’t want to live beneath him. The dress and demeanor of his critics have no bearing on the fact that they are right to say that he is a coarse bigot who has wasted comic talents in the service of offence. His charisma, though, is necessary in explaining why sports stars will ape the reverse Nazi salute that he pioneered, as well as numerous smug, grinning Frenchmen, outside synagogues, memorials, the gates of Auschwitz and the school where just last year Mohammed Merah gunned down children for being Jewish.

Populist styles have undergone a gradual change. The ranting of a Father Coughlin or an Oswald Mosley would seem even more absurd today than it did years ago: hectoring and humourless to the irreverent individuals of our age. A new phenomenon is that of the comic demagogue: one who inspires disdain for the unlucky targets of their anger, and provokes change through scorn and satire. Dieudonné is not unlike another big, powerful man who has used his impressive talents in the Jew-baiting business: cheerful British-Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon. Beppe Grillo has gone from comedian to candidate in Italy, while Russell Brand could claim to have been the most prominent radical voice of the last year. Now, I am not associating the values of Brand and Grillo with those of the former pair – and, indeed, comic demagogues might have very good ones – but I am drawing equivalence between their rhetorical tactics. Such men use similar methods, for good or for ill.

In a New Yorker profile of Dieudonné, the author noted that he “speaks as if he were baffled that he could ever give offence”. He is not making insults, he’s just telling jokes! One thing that struck me about Brand’s manifesto, as well, was its facade of flippancy: each new demand for an uprising being followed by a wisecrack. It would be a more tedious world if ideas were expressed in terms as dry as a loan shark’s tear ducts but my problem is that when dramatic sentiments are couched in facetious tones, earnest responses can be thought pompous. Well, people may speak and write as they desire but if one calls for revolution, never mind spend time with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, one cannot be surprised if people respond in a less than matey, jocular style.

Dieudonné’s populism is a calculated force – exploiting not just the bitterness of les banlieues but the smugness of those middle class people who embrace fallacies about the virtues of offence. One can make splendid jokes that people think offensive. Foolish people, though, think that giving offence is comic in itself. Their laughter springs not from the recognition of truths but from the glee with which they flaunt their own supposed audaciousness. An offended response, then, only affirms their enjoyment. A response is to observe that they might not be so amused if one spoke choice words about their appearance or the nature of their parents’ morals. Another, though, is to state that enjoying the mere infliction of pain on others is not the act of a brave man but a common bully.

Ridicule be excused if peoples’ sensitivities are irrational to the point of being dangerous, and Jewish comedians have had great fun with the hypersensitive tendencies of others of their people, but imagining that this ennobles mocking the murder of people’s relatives by imitating their executioners is like suggesting that hysteria around child safety excuses abduction. How is it not right that people take offence at that? Perhaps Dieudonné has done us a small favour in illuminating a lesson for better natured comics: that sometimes people are reverential for a reason and there are few laughs to be had.

Anyway, thanks to his eccentric football friend this character may reach an audience across the English channel. It would not surprise me if his jokes are too French to appeal here, though nor would it surprise me if that is too optimistic. There is talk, on both sides of the sea, of banning him and his salute, which may be to increase their transgressive appeal. Lenny Bruce is a hero. Sherman Block is not. Still, I feel a great contempt for he and his followers. They pretend to be audacious in demeaning persecution, while elsewhere in Europe Jews face distrust, insults, attacks and, last year, even murder by a thug whose child-killing was then hailed as a heroism in some quarters of society. Cool? No. Nor funny. Cowardly, puerile and at least somewhat ridiculous.

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