Posts Tagged 'liberalism'

Mitsotakis gives rise to liberal hopes but analysts advise caution


By Harry van Versendaal

The recent election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis as leader of New Democracy has inspired hope among liberal voters anticipating a paradigm shift in Greek politics. It has also sparked concern among smaller centrist parties which are wary of losing their monopoly over liberal ideas.

None of this is likely to happen, analysts say.

The 47-year-old Mitsotakis, a former administrative reform minister, defeated Evangelos Meimarakis, a party veteran from the populist right faction of ND, in a runoff vote that was open to all party members on January 10. He is the scion of a political dynasty but this has often worked to his disadvantage. A US-educated ex-banker, Mitsotakis is commonly described as a free market reformist and diehard enemy of statism. His political enemies prefer to dub him “neoliberal.”


Despite these credentials, analysts are skeptical of Mitsotakis’s willingness, let alone his ability, to steer the conservative opposition into a more liberal direction.

One reason is that renewing New Democracy and making it electable are not necessarily compatible tasks. Mitsotakis’s effort to balance between these two strategic objectives, analysts say, will to a large degree determine his party’s nascent identity.

“Although rejuvenating the party in terms of political personnel and policies may allow plenty of room for liberal ideas, bringing it back to power requires unity and compromise,” said Lamprini Rori, a political scientist at Bournemouth University and leading member of Brosta, a progressive political think tank.

Mitsotakis will be expected to cooperate with officials who belong to the party’s conservative faction and who supported him during the campaign – like Adonis Georgiadis, a hardline nationalist who endorsed Mitsotakis after being knocked out in the first round in December. At the same time, many of the MPs who displayed their liberal credentials by, for example, recently voting in favor of the cohabitation pact for same sex couples – former ministers Olga Kefaloyianni, Nikos Dendias, even his sister Dora Bakoyiannis – kept their distance from the new leader during his campaign.

Climbing back to power following two electoral defeats at the hands of SYRIZA (four if you count the European Parliament elections in 2014 and the bailout referendum last year) will also require an overture to voters both to the left and right of New Democracy.

“If ND wants to become a serious contender, it will have to appeal to the center while repatriating voters from Independent Greeks and Golden Dawn,” Rori noted in reference to the ND splinter group founded by Panos Kammenos which is the junior partner in the coalition government, and the neo-fascist party.

“In other words, seeking ideological purity on the basis of a solid liberal credo would be politically damaging for New Democracy,” she said.

Tension between free market ideology and traditional conservatism has always been present inside New Democracy’s political religion since its establishment by the late Constantine Karamanlis in 1974.

“Their coexistence has always been considered a given. One cannot easily show the others the door or leave the party for that reason,” said Iannis Konstantinidis, a political expert at the University of Macedonia and head researcher at the ProRata polling company, suggesting that a ND breakup is not in the cards.

The parliamentary vote on the cohabitation pact exposed the limits of social tolerance inside the conservative party. Only 19 MPs – including Mitsotakis – supported the law, 29 voted against and 27 abstained.

Ideological tension naturally cuts across ND’s grassroots supporters. According to so far unpublished data collected by ProRata ahead of the January 10 ballot, 29 percent of voters described New Democracy as a “liberal party,” while 17 percent said it was a “conservative party.”

“In the eyes of the public, New Democracy is neither a clear-cut liberal nor a clear-cut conservative party,” said Konstantinidis.

“The new leader will as a result find it hard to choose one direction over the other,” he said.


All that should trigger caution against overestimating the impact of Mitsotakis’s election on the liberal parties of the political center.

Potami – which, despite its underwhelming performance in the September 2015 elections, remains the largest and most successful liberal party in recent Greek history – is on standby.

“New Democracy is weighed down by conservative elements; we will only be able to work with them if [Mitsotakis] does away with them,” Potami leader Stavros Theodorakis said this week.

“We would work with the devil in order to change the country, let alone with anyone who shares reformist ideas. For the time being, we have unanimously decided not to join forces with any of the worn-down parties,” he said.

Potami has planned a national congress in February to decide its next steps. During a radio interview earlier this week, Spyros Lykoudis, a left-wing reformist MP, suggested that the magnitude of Mitsotakis’s impact will depend on whether Potami will choose to identify itself as a centrist liberal party or a left-of-center alternative.

Meanwhile, the leader of the pro-business Drasi party, which joined the Potami ticket in the January polls, sounds keener about the prospect of working with New Democracy.

“We are willing to help build something liberal in this country. The election of Mitsotakis is a catalyst in this direction,” said Theodoros Skylakakis, who has previously collaborated with Bakoyannis.

“Mitsotakis’s social and, to a lesser extent, economic liberalism will surely squeeze centrist parties, including the politically damaged Potami party,” Konstantinidis said.

“However, given that the leader of a typical catch-all party will seek to bring together all the different tendencies within it, policy similarities between Mitsotakis and Potami will decrease,” he said.

Ironically, the ascension of Mitsotakis to the helm of ND appears to pose less of a threat to Potami’s singularity than had he not been elected. A beaten Mitsotakis, perhaps joined by other officials from ND’s liberal faction, would have been more tempted to form a center-right, liberal party.

“Mitsotakis’s victory in the leadership race essentially traps liberalism within the walls of New Democracy and, in such conditions, it may lose its impact as it is unlikely to be more dominant than conservatism,” Konstantinidis said.


For their part, the country’s smaller liberal parties will have to decide whether they will go it alone or merge with one of their bigger albeit adulterated relatives. Cooperating with one of the mainstream parties could prove self-destructive in the long term as future voters would be tempted to side with the stronger partner in a coalition.

Before making up their mind, they would be advised to first answer a more existential question: How relevant is a full-fledged liberal party in a political environment dominated by populism and under an electoral law that punishes small parties?

“Sure, there are issues where liberals could gain issue ownership like the separation between Church and state, the scrapping of permanent jobs in the public sector, or the protection of individual rights,” Rori said.

“But we may have to accept that these issues are not salient enough in the mind of the average voter.”

Potami runs dry as support flows to main parties

By Harry van Versendaal

Sunday’s snap vote saw To Potami (The River) fall from would-be kingmaker to bit player, putting its political future in doubt.

The centrist pro-market party won 4.09 percent, about 2 percent down on its previous result eight months ago, and far from the 10 percent target set by its leader, Stavros Theodorakis. In absolute numbers, it lost 151,780 votes compared to January’s elections. Potami was reduced to sixth place, behind neo-fascist Golden Dawn, the left-of-center PASOK socialists and the Greek Communist Party (KKE), as well as front runners SYRIZA and ND.

Exploring the reasons behind the party’s poor performance reveals a mix of political circumstance, character, strategy and ideological credo. Some of the traits have plagued other liberal projects in recent years.


Extreme polarization – partly because opinion polls had pointed to a tight race between SYRIZA and New Democracy (ND) – no doubt stole a considerable chunk of votes away from Potami. Early exit poll data indicate that 17.2 percent of those who voted for the party in January defected to SYRIZA, while another (surprisingly smaller) 14.5 percent went to ND. Just over half of those who voted for Potami in January renewed their support. In the end, and much to the embarrassment of most pollsters, the leftist party of Alexis Tsipras went on to win the vote with a comfortable 7.5 percent margin.

Potami’s purportedly pragmatic strategy to announce that in order to “save” the country it would be willing to join either a right-wing or left-wing government and serve as the balancing force did not seem to resonate with voters.

“The deeply nonpartisan message ‘I can cooperate with ND and SYRIZA if it means preventing the country from being left without a government’ eventually backfired. ‘In that case,’ voters said, ‘why not give my vote straight to ND or SYRIZA?’ And this is what they did,” Potami candidate Petros Tatsopoulos said on Facebook. Perhaps more controversially, Tatsopoulos said the party should shed its pretentions of being the “virtuous loner” and seek to join forces with PASOK.


Founded in February last year, Potami found itself slap-bang in the middle of a tectonic shift in the Greek political landscape caused by the devastating debt crisis. As the two mainstream parties PASOK and New Democracy lost their supremacy, smaller movements began mushrooming along the bailout fault-line, aligning themselves either for or against.

But Potami positioned itself as a post-bailout and post-political movement firmly anchored in the European Union and the eurozone. It shunned the typical trappings of Greek politics. Instead of flag-waving rallies, its leader, a former TV journalist, opted for small town-hall meetings with a seated audience.

Instead of creating a youth wing replete with chants and slogans, Theodorakis wandered around beaches passing out portable ashtrays to smokers and set up eco-friendly camping tents as campaign kiosks to attract disenchanted urban voters. He preached pragmatism, reason and common sense while calling for radical reform of the country’s dysfunctional public sector. Around him, he gathered a motley crew of academics, businessmen and nonpolitical individuals.

Less than a year after its creation, Potami seemed to have succeeded where other liberal-leaning parties had failed after gaining 6.05 percent and 17 seats in Greece’s Parliament. But then things turned sour.

The aversion to populism was key to the party’s failure, according to Stathis Kalyvas, professor of political science at Yale. Given Theodorakis’s visibility and popularity, Kalyvas says, the absence of populism meant that his appeal would find a limited market mostly consisting of intellectuals and intellectual professionals.

“There are just not as many of them, especially in a time of crisis when downwardly mobile intellectuals tend to be particularly spiteful and hence not open to the serious and optimistic message of Potami,” Kalyvas said.

However, its cerebral message was not Potami’s only impediment.

In Parliament, with few exceptions, Potami MPs seemed muted and awkward. Despite its abhorrence of populism, the party’s most visible MPs, apart from a former general secretary of revenues, became a second-rate actor and a former travel show presenter – neither academics nor intellectuals. Its slick marketing was not accompanied by a clear political message. And Theodorakis himself lacked political gravitas, often giving the impression he was acting the part of a political leader, reading his lines in his smooth TV presenter’s voice.

To make matters worse, Theodorakis’s dispassionate everyman was obliterated by the supernova of Alexis Tsipras, the youthful, magnetic leader of SYRIZA who was convinced – and convincing – that he was on a mission to save Greece and change Europe.

“Even if Theodorakis had picked populism, the niche was already taken by the time he emerged, and SYRIZA had a first-mover advantage,” Kalyvas said.


Although Theodorakis assumed responsibility for the poor electoral result, he did seem to claim the high ground, feeding allegations of elitism.

“Maybe in times of crisis society is not in a position to make a cool assessment of the situation and to give its support to a party that represents reason and progress,” said Theodorakis, lending weight to critics bothered by the party’s alleged elitism and intellectual snobbery.

Writing for the website Protagon in the wake of election day, liberal author and former Potami member Nikos Dimou too appeared to suggest that the root causes of defeat lay with the public, and not the product.

“Everyone, even rivals, agreed [Potami] had the best officials. But that too was destroyed by this abhorrence of excellence. You put a man like [constitutional expert] Nikos Alivizatos in a prominent position? You’re asking for it. A party ruled by excellence and reason has no business in a Roman bazaar,” he wrote.


Much in keeping with its post-political profile, Potami decided to skip local party organizations across the country, a standard but costly tradition for Greece’s mainstream political parties. Instead, Potami relied for the most part on an Internet-based campaign that affected its influence – particularly in the Greek countryside.

“In a low-turnout election, where MPs were elected according to their position on the lists of party candidates [rather than the ‘crosses,’ or votes, each received], campaigning is crucial. As a result, Potami’s presence was weak outside Athens,” said Spyros Kosmidis, a political expert at Oxford University.

On top of that, Potami was damaged by low turnout among young voters, the party’s main reservoir of support.


None of the liberal parties launched in Greece in the past 15 years – including the Liberals of Stefanos Manos, Drasi, Democratic Alliance and Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) has been able to break into the mainstream. Analysts tend to point out Greek liberals’ inability to communicate their message, to do single issue politics and get involved in the daily grind of Greek politics. Another reason is the vanity of small differences: Despite their similar platforms, parties are unwilling to compromise on basic issues, leaving the country without a meaningful center-left.

It is happening again. As Potami’s licks its wounds, the once-dominant PASOK is waiting around the corner. A subtle overture from Socialist officials on Wednesday was turned down by Theodorakis, who said that the party would either “remain independent or break up.” He said he was not willing to see the party “become an appendage to New Democracy, PASOK or SYRIZA” and called a congress for the beginning of December, where members are expected to debate what went wrong during the election campaign.

“I find it hard to believe that PASOK and Potami would join forces so long as Theodorakis remains in charge of the party. Timing will certainly play a key role in any future move,” Kosmidis said, adding two more critical factors: the identity of ND’s next leader and the trajectory of SYRIZA’s popularity.

Purists certainly fear that a merger would pollute Potami beyond recognition. The recent election of Fofi Gennimata, an old-school PASOK apparatchik whose father was a senior party official, as the Socialist leader, has fed to skepticism. On the other hand, analysts say a collaboration would bring together the newcomers’ know-how and intellectual seriousness with the Socialists’ far-reaching network of local organizations.

For Alexandra Patrikiou, an expert in political history, a merger would be a boon for the country’s fragmented center-left. But it also seems inevitable for Potami.

“The absence of a clear political identity was not necessarily a handicap. It made the party more flexible and more adaptable, at a time when that was necessary,” Patrikiou said.

“But this absence renders the party hostage to circumstance. It means that it will not be able to survive long-term unless it transforms itself into something different. Today’s strength will become tomorrow’s weakness,” she said.

Enemies of the people

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent opinion piece I wrote for [“A tale of two parties,” January 31] that sought to underline the importance of upholding the right of all people – whether documented or undocumented – to live and pray without fear of violent persecution or death produced a torrent of blind hate.

The overwhelming majority of readers’ comments supported the view that Pakistani immigrants “do not mix” with Greek society and should be deported. One reader said he is “tired and sick of them” because they are “polluting our country and our culture.” The “hypocrite” author of this “one-sided leftist pablum” was obviously not spared the vitriol either.

Interestingly, none of the readers who commented appeared annoyed or offended by the statements of Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, who was quoted in the piece suggesting, among other things, that immigrants eat the capital’s stray dogs.

Many, on the other hand, were quick to bring up the case of the 23-year-old Pakistani who was this week sentenced to life in prison for raping and assaulting a teenage girl on the island of Paros in 2012. Their thinking seemed to be that this was an example of why Pakistanis are supposedly not fit to live in Greece. But to equate the brutal and condemnable assailant of one girl with an entire nation of 180 million people is the kind of irrational thinking that lies behind attacks on migrants in Greece, such as Shahzad Luqman, the 27-year Pakistani who was stabbed while cycling to work last year, allegedly just because of the color of his skin.

Being hated, let alone killed, because of who you are and not because of what you have done, is the very essence of racism. And racial ideology has been at the core of every Nazi-inspired movement. However, it is hard to see why mixing with a Muslim immigrant is a greater challenge than mixing with an intolerant, militant bigot.

Statements by senior government officials like Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias, who on Thursday lamented the “tragic” quality of migrants that come to Greece, indicate that Greek society is nowhere near having a well-informed, non-partisan national debate on immigration and integration.

Given this state of affairs, it is useful for us to keep in mind that Greeks were themselves subjected to despicable racism when they migrated to the USA and Australia last century. And it was only a couple of years ago that British Prime Minister David Cameron said that his country was prepared to close its borders to Greek immigrants in the event that Greece was forced to leave the eurozone.

Condemning the attacks against poor immigrants in the center of Athens does not preclude us from being critical of Islam. Perhaps it is unwise to deny the tension between the religious code of Muslim immigrants and the secular ideals of liberal democracies like Greece. But nothing goes more against our revered western standards than denying individuals who practice a different religion their basic human rights.

Moderate, pragmatic and unloved: Greece’s liberal parties

By Harry van Versendaal

“In Greece, a liberal is called a ‘neoliberal’ and is perceived as a ‘neoconservative’,” says Constantinos Alexacos, an architect who ran as a candidate with the Drasi party in the May 6 elections.

Big shocks change perceptions but the spectacular meltdown of Greece’s two-party system, dominant since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has failed to shake off at least one: mainstream distrust in liberalism.

Socialist PASOK and the New Democracy conservatives suffered a drubbing on Sunday, seeing their combined share of the vote sink to an all-time low of 32 percent. Nevertheless, none of the country’s liberal parties — Democratic Alliance, Drasi (which merged with Liberal Alliance ahead of the vote), or Dimiourgia Xana (Recreate Greece) — won enough votes to make it into Parliament. The three garnered a combined 6.5 percent, or 411,536 votes, as a huge chunk of support went to the anti-bailout parties away from the center of the political spectrum.

The poor showing has prompted a fair deal of frustration and soul-searching among self-described liberals in this debt-wracked nation. If there is one thing they all agree on it’s that their doctrine is a perennial victim of bad publicity. For a wide range of reasons, liberalism is still a dirty word for many, particularly those on the left.

“Like capitalism, liberal ideologies in Greece have been defined by their opponents, not their supporters. We’ve allowed others to tell the Greek population what we are, what we believe, who we are aligned with,” says Emmanuel Schizas, editor of the LOL Greece blog.

“Essentially, if you call yourself a liberal, the reasoning goes, you are pro-war, pro-monopolies, a corporatist, unfeeling and uncaring, and have a casual tolerance for corruption, inequality and the suppression of political rights,” adds Schizas.

It’s quite an exasperating situation for people who have traditionally espoused such values as individual freedom, rule of law, active but accountable government, free but responsible markets, and mutual toleration.

Most liberals have called for a smaller government, fewer civil servants, privatizations and further deregulation of closed professions. But the fact that liberal parties chose to back the deeply unpopular austerity policies attached to the EU-IMF bailout deal didn’t do much to promote their ideas. Worse, some liberal commentators say, the parties paid the price of endorsing ideas that were not, in fact, related to their political religion.

“Most liberals around the world have strongly opposed policies like those included in the memorandum,” says Tilemachos Chormovitis, a contributor for the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog. “You can’t solve a debt crisis by accepting more loans. Instead of putting forward their own program against the tax-heavy policies of the memorandum and the stubborn statism of the left, liberals tagged along with the worn-out parties that backed the program,” he says.

To be sure, allergy to liberal ideas goes further back and has systematically been fed by the system of nepotism, clientelism and corruption that took hold of Greek society after populist PASOK rose to power in 1981. Any attempts to contain the country’s gigantic and profligate state ran against the interests of the ruling parties and their voters. Over time, liberal reforms were seen as coming together with a self-destruct button.

“There comes a point on the road to serfdom where so much of a country is dependent on government subsidies, government-sanctioned rents and government-upheld false economies, that liberalizing it will simply kill it,” says Schizas with a mention of F.A. Hayek’s 1944 classic.

Implementing liberal economic reforms, he says, was bound to take a hefty toll on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people — at least in the medium term. “In an aged and inflexible society such as ours, people don’t bounce back from such setbacks; they stay down,” he says.

It’s hard to miss the uncomfortable truth at the core of the liberal creed: “The liberal parties are in the business of pointing out trade-offs; telling people they can’t have everything. That’s been a widely unpopular way of thinking in Greece since the ‘change’ of 1981,” says Schizas, referring to the late Andreas Papandreou’s famous campaign slogan which heralded the massive, but often misguided, program of wealth redistribution which was to follow.

The trade-off idea is a far cry from the populist, pie-in-the-sky idealism that has animated Greek parties seeking to appease an audience that had grown increasingly spoiled during the past 30 years. Furthermore, this cold, instrumental approach to politics, observers say, is out of synch with the all-too-human qualities of politicking. “Politics is not engineering. It’s chaotic, it does not follow a straight line. Just like life,” Kathimerini commentator Nikos Xydakis says, acknowledging SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’s deft timing and political opportunism. “Politics requires Machiavellian ‘virtue,’ the ability to adapt to any given situation by doing whatever is necessary,” he says.

Wrong leaders, wrong audience

Analysts also voice reservations over whether Drasi leader, veteran politician and ex-minister Stefanos Manos and former New Democracy heavyweight Dora Bakoyannis, who now heads Democratic Alliance, are the right people for the job.

The biggest handicap, journalist and urban activist Dimitris Rigopoulos suggests, is that the vast majority of voters see them as part of the problem, not the solution. “Manos and Bakoyannis are both associated in the collective consciousness with Greece’s discredited political establishment,” he says.

Parallel to this, experts say, there’s an issue with the audiences that these parties have chosen for themselves. Drasi, which likes to see itself as the ‘orthodox’ libertarian party, tanked outside the main urban centers while drawing a disproportionate share of the vote from the alumni of elite schools. One of the most common criticisms against liberals is that they are haughty and elitist.

“You get the impression that many of these people feel unfortunate to have been born in Greece and often treat their compatriots with disdain. Naturally, they have failed to identify with the masses and the biggest chunk of support comes from posh districts like Filothei or Kolonaki,” Chormovitis says.

Meanwhile, most of the support for Democratic Alliance appears to come from the reservoir of voters connected to Dora Bakoyannis’s family — which includes her father and ex-Premier Constantine Mitsotakis and her late politician husband Pavlos. “If we’re being charitable, it would be best to say that not all of them care about liberal this and liberal that; they have personal loyalties,” says Schizas.

Still far from tipping point, but…

Some observers are rather reserved about the future of Greece’s liberal movement. “Greeks — at least those who did not vote for the leftovers of the old system and those who didn’t abstain — voted for sterile reaction and conservatism,” says journalist and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos.

The ballot, he says, shows that Greece’s creative minority — those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow — is still far from reaching what writer Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point” – “that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire,” bringing about disproportionate change in society.

“If Greece’s creative minority had really reached the tipping point, the country wouldn’t have gone bankrupt in the first place,” Georgakopoulos says.

But true to their creed, liberals remain optimistic about the future. For Rigopoulos, a journalist with Kathimerini and founding member of the Atenistas citizens’ group, Greece is for the first time witnessing the conditions for the emergence of a genuinely liberal, reformist movement.

“Until five years ago, the so-called liberal front was reduced to a mostly isolated, demonized faction inside New Democracy plus a few scattered voices inside PASOK — the legacy of Costas Simitis, as it were,” he says in reference to the former modernist-minded premier. As intense polarization fades, new forces are being unleashed — “for better or for worse,” he says.

But unless they decide to join forces, liberals will find it hard to reach the tipping point. Ironically, although they are proud of their pragmatism and consensual habits, Greek liberals were in these elections represented with three distinct groupings. While bigger parties are struggling to form a unity government, liberal party officials have over the past few days been in talks to cooperate ahead of possible new elections. “Working with other people and parties has always been part of the solution as far as Drasi is concerned,” says Alexacos.

Others are less sure about the prospect. Chormovitis, for one, questions whether a liberal coalition would in fact succeed in even amassing the combined 6.5 percent won by the three parties on May 6.

“I am not so sure that Bakoyiannis’s election base in Crete or Evrytania would vote for a liberal coalition party that would not feature herself as leader, or that the fans of Manos and Tzimeros would throw their weight behind one of the most worn-out politicians of the post-1974 period,” says Chormovitis in reference to Thanos Tzimeros, the young advertiser who led Dimiourgia Xana, the surprise package among smaller parties.

Schizas insists parties should call on their supporters to discuss and approve a common platform first. “The liberal parties have never tried to develop a potential common policy platform and are instead focusing on horse-trading among themselves,” he says.

But whether they choose to cooperate or not, Schizas says, Greece’s liberals must above all reach a point where they are defined not by association, but by their actual program. “As long as we are the pro-banker people, the pro-gay people, the pro-bailout people, the pro-privatization people, the anti-minimum-wage people, we are easy prey.”

Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

Disappointed in the sun

Photo by Todd Kesselman

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to be philosophical about the situation in Greece these days, but if Simon Critchley is right that “philosophy begins in disappointment,” then maybe we should give it a chance.

The 50-year-old philosopher was born in Britain and is an exponent of so-called “continental” philosophy – a bit of a rarity in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is famously allergic to the esoteric and nonanalytical explorations of their continental peers. Author of, among others, “Very Little… Almost Nothing,” “On Humour,” and “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” Critchley currently teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York and is the man behind “The Stone,” the New York Times’ extremely popular philosophy forum. “How to Stop Living and Start Worrying,” a collection of interviews with Critchley, was recently released by Polity Press.

Recently, Critchley visited Athens to give a brief lecture on violence at the industrial premises of EDW, a brand-new multidisciplinary venue in the up-and-coming Kerameikos district. He talked to Kathimerini English Edition about politics, violence and, one of his “top 5 philosophers,” Friedrich Nietzsche.

You visited Greece in the midst of a major economic, social and political crisis. Does philosophy have anything to offer to someone who has lost their job or house?

Absolutely. I take no pleasure in people losing their jobs and homes. But the fact is that people and in particular their governments in Greece and all across the European Union and elsewhere were living a lie, a kind of dream. It is sometimes extremely painful to wake up. The wisdom of ancient Greek philosophical traditions is essential here. Diogenes the Cynic threw away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands. Pleasure for Epicurus was a barley cake and a beaker of water. “Give me a pot of cheese,” he said, “and I will dine like a king.”

Do you see liberal democracy as a successful project? What are its main failures? Are there any alternatives?

I am not a very good liberal and the wrong person to ask about the success or otherwise of liberal democracy. It’s main current failure is the massive disconnection between the political class and those who that class are meant to represent. My alternative would be small-scale federalism based on direct democracy, or as close to that as possible.

What do you think of the EU project?

Not that much. It has prevented a war between France and Germany for the past 60 years, but I remain skeptical of its political ambitions. I agree with Paul Krugman that Greece’s entry into the euro effectively undermined national sovereignty.

You have lived in the United States for seven years now. How does it compare to Europe?

I don’t really live in the US. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. I love this city because it is a city of foreigners where everyone is a visitor, a metic and no one is a native. I can’t speak about the US as a whole.

You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment. What is the meaning of that phrase? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Would you argue for a Nietzschean-style re-evaluation of values, as it were?

I remain very close to Nietzsche, in particular on the question of pessimism and optimism. For Nietzsche, rightly I think, there was something deeply nihilistic about the naive scientific belief in progress. Ancient Greek tragedy, by contrast, is an affirmation of life that succeeds by staring the worst in the face without flinching. Philosophy might begin with disappointment, but it doesn’t end there. It culminates in ethical commitment and political resistance, in my view.

On violence

In your Athens talk, you discussed violence. Most people in the audience seemed to suggest that the world we live in is a more violent world, compared to the past. Do you agree?

The world is a dark and violent place. Is it more violent that in the past? it is very hard to tell and it is also unclear what is often meant by violence. There is physical violence, of course, but also what we might call the “soft” violence of language itself and the violence of what often passes for peace.

You also said violence is never justified, but it is sometimes necessary. Can you explain further?

My view, but this is part of a much longer argument that comes out of a personal commitment to the ethics and politics of nonviolence, is that violence is sometimes necessary, but never justified. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Notre musique” puts it, “To kill a human being to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.”

Left-wing discourse in Greece likes to justify physical violence as a rightful response to systemic violence, as it were. Do we risk losing the meaning of violence here?

Like I said, violence is sometimes necessary. But I am not one of those people who supports virile, heroic acts of political violence. But it is always important to remember that violence is a phenomenon with a history and that history is one of the cycles of violence and counter-violence that seems to catch subjects in a repetitive loop. My hope is that this loop can be broken.

Liberalism and the burqa

By Harry van Versendaal

One of the most common arguments put forward against recent steps by some European governments to ban the full-face veil, known as the niqab or burqa, is the small number of Muslim women who wear it. Lawfulness, however, is not based on numbers. It is illegal to kill another man, even if only a few people wish to do so.

Of course, there are more arguments against such ban. Outlawing the burqa, opponents of the move say, is racist, intolerant and undemocratic. But it’s hard to miss the fact that the call for multicultural tolerance is coming from one of the least tolerant, mono-cultural segments of society. Interestingly, defense of the burqa has also drawn support from misguided liberals and leftist multi-culties (who seem to forget that many women in Muslim countries are still beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their faces) as well as some in the Christian right who are wary of losing their own “sacred” rights and privileges.

Leaving security concerns and the demeaning of women aside, one question that needs to be answered is why a majority should be subjected to the cultural whims of a minority? Doesn’t it make more sense for an immigrant to abide by the mores and values of the land where he or she has chosen to live rather than the other way round? And even though the West should not go down the oft-used reciprocity argument – “We must not allow Muslims to build mosques in Europe until they allow Christians to build their own churches there” – because a place like Sudan or Saudi Arabia cannot serve as standard for any modern European nation, it seems fair – in fact it is very crucial – to state that liberal states have no reason to give in to the yens of their culturally assertive minorities either. Yielding to one demand will naturally spawn further similar demands, and the list is already too long: sexually segregated swimming pools, the abolition of certain textbooks at schools, special medical treatment for women, calls for polygamy and forced marriages and so on (and, alas, we must not leave the defense of Enlightenment values to the extreme right).

Each time it gives in to segregationist demands, liberalism is effectively giving up a chunk of itself. In going out of their way to accommodate these customs, liberal states are helping to create a state within a state, a segregated society where people live in accordance with their own rules and values. For what does a woman clad in a full-face garment convey other than her willingness to separate herself from the rest of society? It’s like saying: “I am not one of you; I do not belong here; you are impure.”

Living in an open society is all about freedom, transparency and interaction – and the individuals who wish to participate in such society ought to, at least, be identifiable.

Fearful, not jealous

By Harry van Versendaal

A fascinating explanation does not necessarily make a good explanation. The recent Swiss vote to ban the construction of more minarets in the Alpine country has ignited a great deal of soul-searching and self-flagellation among liberal-minded people – the sort of people who think that banning religion cannot be the right answer to any question. One would be tempted to think of the Swiss vote and similar gestures as signs of European fear, or even loathing, of Islam for what it is or is perceived to be.

Not Ian Buruma. Writing in the Guardian in the aftermath of the Swiss minaret vote, the Anglo-Dutch author and journalist said that “those soaring minarets, those black headscarves are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith.”

It’s repressed-envy talk: We westerners, the god-less individualists living in the disenchanted and fragmented world of modernity, are jealous of the pious Muslim minorities living in our midst. We envy the structure, the community feeling, the life purpose.

“The Muslims are envied for still having faith, for knowing who they are, for having something that is worth dying for,” said Buruma. “But if the Swiss and other Europeans were self-assured about their own identities, their Muslim fellow-citizens probably would not strike such fear in their hearts,” he said.

Buruma is author of “Murder in Amsterdam,” an eloquent insight into Islam’s place in Holland and the Continent at large, prompted by an account of the brutal stabbing in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a young extremist. Back then, he did not seem to take notice of the envy.

Buruma is not the only one to reconsider. Sjoerd de Jong, assistant editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, thinks that growing tension between full-blooded Netherlanders and their Muslim fellow citizens has partly been caused by Holland’s own rapid — too rapid perhaps — modernization, which makes the Dutch schizophrenic, as he puts it, toward Muslims.

“On the one hand we want them to be like us: modern, liberal, and tolerant; but on the other hand we are a bit envious of them because they still have traditional values and community values, they still have a kind of conservative morality which we used to have, and which we abandoned, and which we are now in a certain way looking to find again,” de Jong said during an interview in Amsterdam earlier this year.

De Jong, who had just penned his book “A World of Difference,” a study on the flaws of Dutch cultural relativism, painted the Netherlands as a nation trying to reclaim that lost sense of community, of traditional values, of obligation — instead of entitlement, which so quickly gained ground in the 1960s.

The Dutch, in other words, want to be more like their Muslim immigrants. De Jong too uses the word “envy” to describe the feeling.

“The Muslim worldview is a view of duties, not of rights. There is a kind of hidden envy towards Muslims. The open policy is you have to adjust to ‘us.’ But in the meantime we are subconsciously trying to adjust to ‘them.’ We are trying to have a new vigorous sense of community, a vigorous sense of values, a vigorous sense of morality. And at the same time we accuse them for having exactly that,” said de Jong.

Like Buruma’s, de Jong’s is an interesting theory. But it doesn’t hold water. Why should European attitudes be fuelled by some form of repressed envy for Muslims and not plain antipathy or fear? Whether that fear is ill-informed or justified is another question. (Sure, if you happen to be a secular, an atheist, an agnostic, a homosexual, a feminist or a Jew — and there certainly are many of them in Europe — you have good reason to be edgy.) But it is fear nevertheless. Swiss worries of terrorist reprisal following the minaret vote were fear, not envy of the way some Muslim radicals chose to defend their cozy ideal.

Buruma blames European apprehension on the lack of self-assurance. But too much self-assurance can put an awful strain on outsiders, for it is usually based on less-than-real concepts like “god,” “race” or “the nation.” In fact, if Muslims are able to live in Europe and enjoy a great level of religious freedom — certainly greater than what religious minorities enjoy in their country of origin — it is because Europeans in a way lack such Muslim-style self-assurance. Secular Europeans like to wear their metaphysical beliefs lightly.

An identity that draws its strength from religion or other metaphysical mumbo jumbo inevitably becomes insensitive to the pain and the suffering of others. Western disenchantment, the shedding of illusions and otherworldly beliefs, has been a step toward more freedom. The same goes for the shedding of mystical or archaic traditions, some of which might have been useful in gluing communities together but are totally out of tune with the modern world of democracy, equal rights and female empowerment.

Only in the modern, secular West, some will say. But the Swiss live in the modern, secular west.

Many have lashed out at “the bigoted Swiss,” disregarding the fact that most Europeans — including Greeks — would most likely behave the same way in the privacy of the voting booth. But instead of bashing the Swiss as intolerant xenophobes, it would perhaps be more useful to examine why they are scared of those black headscarves and those soaring minarets. And what both sides can do about this.

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