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The Crisis of European Social Democracy – Daily Mail Online

A sure sign of escapism from political realities is the resolute misnaming of a crisis. This year will be the fourth since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Two years have already passed since the situation in Greece progressed from dire to critical. We are approaching the anniversaries of the infamous dates on which governments in Greece and Italy were deposed at the behest of Brussels in favour of administrations comprised largely by technocrats. The labels blaming capitalism for this crisis morph, but if there were honesty amongst statesmen and electorates we would speak, as we should, of the terminal crisis of late European social democracy. That is the cause of the crisis correctly named, both of the crushing debts under which Europe is sinking and of political infantilisation across the continent, rendering voters unable and unwilling to take a responsible stance towards their own unaffordable entitlements.

Irish Liberalism & Gay Marriage – The Irish Times

In considering gay marriage, it is essential to see treating different situations differently in no way constitutes discrimination.

What is more fundamental here is the co-option of human rights language by an increasingly hegemonic strain of intolerant liberalism. Whereas the “right to marriage” as pertaining to couples of the same sex is a recent invention, the right of a child to both a mother and a father where possible is not. The reason for opposing the unnecessary elevation of civil partnerships to the notional status of marriage is that marriage then loses its nature as the one institution supported by society because it is the family form which on average gives a child the most advantageous upbringing. It is agreed by most that civil partnerships mostly suffice in practical terms for same-sex couples. Altering the focus of marriage from children to relationships disadvantages future generations to no more necessary end than the further march of an increasingly cavalier and triumphalist liberalism.

Marine Le PenThe Imperfect, Necessary Choice of Marine Le Pen – Daily Mail Online

Marine Le Pen remains, among an imperfect choice in urgent times, the only candidate capable of saving France’s control over her finances, borders, and identity. She is the only candidate available to conservative voters advancing the case for an exit from the Euro, the one measure which if executed carefully might yet save France from being swamped by foreign debts amassed elsewhere in a European project largely of its own making. France next elects a president to the Élysée Palace in 2017. The most urgent question in this election ought to have been whether the next will matter much. There is no good reason as things stand to believe that France will escape the impotent slide into the morass of multiculturalism and bankrupt late European social democracy.

Against Gay Marriage – Irish Daily Mail

I am not a big believer in people making arguments on the back of who or what they happen to be. When I last made the case against gay marriage, about a year ago, I didn’t feel the need to mention that I am gay myself, but I am concerned enough about the way things are going to make an exception.

Explaining that you oppose gay marriage as a gay man tends to get a baffled response at first. This is understandable given how quickly the debate on gay marriage can collapse into allegations of homophobia. The message, explicit or implicit, is often that being anti-gay marriage means being in some way anti-gay.

There’s More and Worse to Come in Ireland – Critical Reaction

Although Ireland’s citizenry scarcely number that of a largish but not particularly populous European city, the election is nonetheless an extraordinary and revelatory event. Irish voters went to the polls only four months after the abject humiliation of being forced to accept around €100billion in new debt at the behest of its EU creditors, a so-called bail-out that burdens Irish taxpayers with impossible obligations to foreign bondholders who gambled unsuccessfully on their stricken banks. Rarely do Western democracies vote while quite so close to the abyss as Ireland just has; stripped of her fiscal sovereignty by the IMF, indebted far beyond hope of eventual repayment, and hobbled by a political culture soft on cronyism, corruption, and the extremist pasts of prominent public figures.

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In Memoriam: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Word of the death of the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has reached me as I was rereading Heidegger on death and temporality in the latter section of Sein und Zeit. Placing Fischer-Dieskau is a task fraught with ambiguities, in light of which mention of Heidegger may be permitted.

Twenty years of age in 1945 (he would spend two years as an American prisoner-of-war; his first public performance, Winterreise, was interrupted by an RAF air-raid), Fischer-Dieskau began his career in the literal ruins of the German tradition, coming to represent something of the revivified great Weimar tradition of Goethe and Schiller, if we add to those the name to which his own is now inseparably associated, that of Franz Schubert. To embody, by no means alone but nonetheless perhaps pre-eminently, the  salvaging from the rubble of the musical legacy of Germany’s Weimar inheritance was his greatness and his limitation; the limitation being that the distinctively unheroic ambiance of his Schubertian musicality problematically suffused his interpretations from later in the canon. If we may borrow references from political historiography and apply them to music, Fischer-Dieskau avoided the polarities of Joachim Fest on the one hand and Jurgen Habermas on the other. There is a particular poignancy in listening again on news of his death to his renditions from Die Meistersinger, which he recorded in toto three times, as he did Lohengrin. There was always an almost self-conscious Erasmian touch to his self-presentation. Not accidentally, a key promotional recording issued in 1965 by Deutsche Grammophon, heavily featuring Fischer-Dieskau, was entitled ‘Music in the European Tradition’; in truth, it was the German tradition, still unwilling to name itself without apology.

Fischer-Dieskau’s Wagner always sounded clipped to this writer’s ear, neither attaining nor obviously aspiring towards the sonorous fullness Wagner’s baritone parts demand. The first of three recordings presented here is Fischer-Dieskau singing Wotans Abschied und Feuerzauber under the baton of Rafael Kubelik. The musicality of the rendition is still striking. The interpretation, however, could surely suffice as nobody’s last word on the passage; its moderation and even its diction betraying the infection of the lieder tradition in heights of the repetoire in which it has no place whatsoever. The second clip, Verachtet mir die Meister nicht from the finale of Die Meistersinger, exhibits how the limitation can work in the service of the music, the almost exaggerated correctness of the singing not being altogether inappropriate given the dramaturgical context. We conclude with Der Erlkönig, the master lieder singer performing the pinnacle of the lieder tradition.

 

 

The Crisis of European Social Democracy

[Originally published with the Daily Mail Online]

A sure sign of escapism from political realities is the resolute misnaming of a crisis. This year will be the fourth since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Two years have already passed since the situation in Greece progressed from dire to critical. We are approaching the anniversaries of the infamous dates on which governments in Greece and Italy were deposed at the behest of Brussels in favour of administrations comprised largely by technocrats.

What is astonishing is that the European crisis has not been accurately named. If the left were to be believed, we are living through a crisis of capitalism. Politicians of various hues prefer to outsource culpability to the alleged misdeeds of the financial markets or the vagaries of the global economy, a fault in which David Cameron and George Osborne increasingly indulge. Now we are witnessing the revolt against ‘austerity’, which is no more than the latest scapegoat for the crisis, as demonstrated in recent days by the collapse of the Dutch government and mass protests across fifty towns in Spain.

The labels blaming capitalism for this crisis morph, but if there were honesty amongst statesmen and electorates we would speak, as we should, of the terminal crisis of late European social democracy. That is the cause of the crisis correctly named, both of the crushing debts under which Europe is sinking and of political infantilisation across the continent, rendering voters unable and unwilling to take a responsible stance towards their own unaffordable entitlements.

The fundamental deceit around Europe today is that things can continue as they were, once commitment to the Euro has been proved and as national balance sheets magically realign in the coming years. This deception conceals the fact the most European countries have been spending more than they raise in revenue not merely of late, but in many cases for several decades on end. Long before today’s urgencies struck, European governments of the left, right, and centre alike spent incontinently and told the recipients that the borrowed cash was little sort of their birthright.

Almost without exception, European countries entered the crisis with unaffordable welfare entitlements, unfunded future liabilities in pensions, chronic budget deficits, and a blithe resolution by their respective political classes to continue bribing their way into power through promises of further unfinanced largesse. Without the terminal demands of the standing requirements of social democratic excesses, a crisis of the banking sector would never have become the crisis of solvency afflicting an entire continent. Yet make no mistake that the crisis was impending quite irrespective of what proximate cause exposed a generation’s worth of fiscal delinquency.

The most pitiful aspect of the European drama is the one that should give rise also to the deepest pessimism. Past crises in European history were punctuated by the demand to be entrusted with a greater share of responsible self-government. Today’s European protests make the demand to be treated like spoilt children. Rather than taking to the streets to call for the end of the inter-generational Ponzi scheme that is European social democracy, today’s protestors take to the streets to preserve their status as servile supplicants of a bankrupt welfare state.

No less serious around Europe than the budget deficits is the reality deficit. Several countries have accepted the direct or more subtle imposition of control by Brussels without serious complaint. The sheer indignity of the behaviour of many European electorates is deeply disquieting. The appetite for responsible self-government has largely disappeared around the continent and the only action which can mobilise a popular response is a curtailment of entitlements which are by now grossly unaffordable. In that is visible the moral cost of social democracy, at the moment when its economic cost stands out most strikingly in its ruinous consequences.

The Ideal Book Review

The current condition and uncertain future of book reviewing is a recurrent concern.

None of us can read everything we might wish to read in one lifetime. The decline of book reviewing would seem to mirror the decline in serious reading, the desire for the excellent or the essential in preference to the merely recent.

The disappearance of many newspaper book review sections reflects the increasing disinclination of the press to accord itself a role aiming as much at enlightenment as entertainment, but the vista here is not one of unmitigated decline. The influence and importance of small journals and magazines is not negligible and some are outstanding. Listed is an incomplete survey of the extant citadels of intellectual aspiration in which book reviewing still receives its due latitude.

The ideal book review, like the ideal library, does not exist and can be varied in imagination according to taste. To this writer’s mind, our imagined review would combine expansive correspondence arising from previous issues, selections from new writing, particularly poetry, several essays situated in that important space between higher journalism and the scholarly, as well book reviews of sufficient length to be able to do more than summarise the volumes under consideration. No concession would be made by asperity to civility. Much in the manner of Lord Acton’s introduction to my 1893 edition of Il Principe, which coasts through seven languages without warning or apology (or lack of good cause), the reader would be expected to be conversant with the main European languages and the classics, or, if not, which will often be the case, at least to accept that if this asks a lot it is nonetheless proper that the reader be invited to raise his or her game rather than requiring of the writer that he or she lowers their own.


Marine Le Pen, The Imperfect, Necessary Choice

France’s politics would appear to be in deceptively rude health. As Sunday’s first stage of the country’s two-round presidential election approaches, the vital indicators return vivid signs of life.

Mass meetings in Paris and elsewhere have drawn numbers and passion hard to imagine in some parts of an exhausted Western Europe. Online politics has made an impact for the first time. There is a choice on the ballot paper of ten candidates, ranging as fully from right to left as from plausible to eccentric.

France’s rarely quiescent intellectuals have offered their customary profusion of commentary on the country’s choices.

What France has not confronted honestly is the likelihood that this is the final French election for some time in which the country will vote on its future with an acceptable degree of control over its own destiny. The erosion of French self-government has been commissioned from within and awaits to be ratified from without.

Nicholas Sarkozy has campaigned on the theme of a ‘Strong France’. His speeches consciously allude to the Fifth Republic’s founder General de Gaulle, praising an ‘Eternal France’ Sarkozy himself has never been in danger of embodying. Rather, he is the latest architect of the decline of French democracy to something bordering on irrelevance.

The most urgent, the most assiduously avoided challenge facing France is the erosion of its self-government. Sarkozy’s European policy has abetted the long-desired European federalism of the French political class, through means of government by decree from Brussels and the outright replacement of recalcitrant governments in Greece and Italy.

In other European countries, the surface pretence of politics as usual has only been perpetuated by the craven compliance of hostage governments, as in Ireland. The fundamental deceit is that France herself is immune from the consequences of her president’s betrayal of other ancient European nations.

As the election campaign has demonstrated, this is not so to any extent which would return decisions over economic matters and identity to the French people. France’s banking system is critically exposed to the debts of the delinquent European margins, confirmed in Sarkozy’s last year in office by the trauma of a sovereign downgrade in a country where banks hold a status akin to proxies of the State. This very central standing in French public life, with its implicit expectation of support in crisis, was not enough to convince ratings-agencies of their durability – precisely because it is in question whether the French State possesses the capacity to deliver such support if required.

Although it is unlikely that this will come to pass, should Sarkozy secure re-election he would in all probability find himself faced with the appalling question of whether France herself could survive the humiliation of direction from Berlin and Brussels in the threatened eventuality of Spanish or Italian default.

Much as Friedrich Hayek caustically referred to ‘socialists of all parties’ in the age of British muddy centrism shared between Labour and the Conservatives before the rise of Margaret Thatcher, one might see the choice of leading candidates in France as that between Eurofederalists of various parties. Neither Nicholas Sarkozy nor the likely victor Socialist François Hollande differ in their deference to ever-closer union. Much of their respective programmes must accordingly be discounted entirely as the outlines of an agenda they would never give themselves the liberty to execute.

The insurgent hard-left challenger Jean-Luc Mélenchon numbers the old French Communist Party within his alliance, calls for revolution in Europe, and speaks to supporters who bring Soviet flags to his rallies. The only other candidates polling in double figures, save one, is the centrist François Bayrou who combines many of his opponents’ defects with few redeeming virtues of his own.

In present circumstances, given present choices, the only responsible vote in France next Sunday is a vote for Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front. This requires to be immediately qualified in several important respects:

Le Pen’s protectionist economic policies are both foolish and futile. Her campaign has often been poor and indistinct. This is particularly culpable during a European crisis which ought to have given her party an opportunity unparalleled since inception and suggests serious limits in her own capabilities.

Her efforts to regulate the political instincts of her party mitigate without cancelling out present reminders of its unacceptable past, most notable among which are her vocal and hot-headed father Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Her stalwart defence of France’s right to perpetuate its national identity has forced Nicholas Sarkozy to give the issue a seriousness of attention he failed to grant it while office, but has sometimes been made by appeal to the lower instincts of the French electorate rather than the higher.

Marine Le Pen remains, among an imperfect choice in urgent times, the only candidate capable of saving France’s control over her finances, borders, and identity.

She is the only candidate available to conservative voters advancing the case for an exit from the Euro, the one measure which if executed carefully might yet save France from being swamped by foreign debts amassed elsewhere in a European project largely of its own making.

While Nicholas Sarkozy raises the prospect of securing French borders through withdrawal from the Schengen area, she possesses the requisite disdain for European entanglements which he all too comprehensively does not. Her defence of French national identity in the country with Europe’s most numerous Muslim minority is credible, whereas Sarkozy’s betrays his increasingly impotent opportunism.

France next elects a president to the Élysée Palace in 2017. The most urgent question in this election ought to have been whether the next will matter much. There is no good reason as things stand to believe that France will escape the impotent slide into the morass of multiculturalism and bankrupt late European social democracy.

Irish Liberalism & The Gay Marriage Debate

[This column was published in the Irish Times on April 20th 2012]

AFTER LAST year’s introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples, the debate has swiftly progressed to the question of introducing gay marriage. Several characteristic limitations of the case for doing so are apparent in Kieran Rose’s argument in favour (The Irish Times, April 10th).

A number of self-contradictory or inaccurate arguments must be dispatched before the kernel of the question can be reached.

Public opinion data showing majority support for the introduction of gay marriage is now increasingly cited. This is doubtless accurate.

Public opinion is, however, no more conclusive a reason to legislate for gay marriage today than hostile opinion was good reason to delay reform concerning homosexuality.

Gay activists retrospectively give false legitimacy to the criminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland until 1993 by adducing opinion polling to a debate requiring resolution by reference to the common good. If majority opinion today is good cause to introduce gay marriage, it must have been similarly good cause for the profound imprudence of the law until two decades ago.

That this is absurd betrays not only a shallowness discernible in the case for gay marriage but also what has to be identified as a degree of intellectual dishonesty.

One is as likely to hear both that the Irish public desires the introduction of gay marriage and that the Irish public harbours a dangerous degree of homophobia.

Rose draws on both claims, yet they are clearly self-contradictory.

Separately but similarly, Rose says summarily “the court of public opinion has spoken”. This constitutes an attempt to shut down the debate on gay marriage.

One could appeal to the injustice of this commonplace summary cloture, visible at the recent Fine Gael Ardfheis at which no dissenting voice was allowed speak against the pro-gay marriage motion, but it is wiser to appeal to the imprudence of the imposition of gay marriage by decree rather than by decision.

Closely allied is the frequency with which opponents of gay marriage find their arguments pathologised rather than engaged. This is true despite the existence of gay opponents of gay marriage, such as this writer.

As for claims raised in the name of the gay community, I would prefer if someone with whom I share nothing but sexual orientation did not use that rather uninteresting fact to raise in my name political claims I and others do not share.

Rose states that gay marriage would have “resonance in related areas of difference and inclusion such as ethnic origins”. In short, we are asked to believe that Irish social cohesion through demographic change rests in enough measure to warrant mention on the introduction of gay marriage.

That such arguments can be made with a straight face indicates not only a certain hubris one detects in Irish liberals today.

Perhaps more tellingly, it bespeaks the absence in this country of much willingness in the media or in the political debate to scrutinise Irish liberalism rather than genuflect to it.

In terms of its attitudinal centre of gravity, Ireland has swung from one pole to another in recent decades. Yet comparing today’s Ireland with the Ireland of Archbishop McQuaid reveals that neither the deferential quality of debate in Ireland nor its intellectually undernourished nature have much altered.

The essence of the gay marriage demand is stated by Rose in the assertion that “the right to marry is a basic human right”. So far as claims of justice are concerned, this is the most serious contention that can be raised in support of the introduction of gay marriage.

In Rose’s account, the claim is buttressed by the UN Charter of Human Rights and “other human rights treaties”. Such claims are raised increasingly frequently. They rest on no more than assertion.

Recently, France’s supreme court has found that no discrimination is implied in the distinction between marriage and partnership provisions. The European Court of Human Rights has found there is no right to gay marriage in the European Convention on Human Rights and this does not amount to discrimination.

In considering gay marriage, it is essential to see treating different situations differently in no way constitutes discrimination.

What is more fundamental here is the co-option of human rights language by an increasingly hegemonic strain of intolerant liberalism. Whereas the “right to marriage” as pertaining to couples of the same sex is a recent invention, the right of a child to both a mother and a father where possible is not.

The reason for opposing the unnecessary elevation of civil partnerships to the notional status of marriage is that marriage then loses its nature as the one institution supported by society because it is the family form which on average gives a child the most advantageous upbringing.

It is agreed by most that civil partnerships mostly suffice in practical terms for same-sex couples. Altering the focus of marriage from children to relationships disadvantages future generations to no more necessary end than the further march of an increasingly cavalier and triumphalist liberalism.

Ireland’s Unasked Question

A prevalent set of presuppositions militates against grading the political behaviour of a nation. At a vulgar level, this gives expression to such sentiments as ‘the people are never wrong’ and its variants. ‘People get the government they deserve’ is heard, but bespeaks cynicism rather than sober evaluation.

Debating the health of a polity is not uncommon. Some do; some do not. One benchmark of political health is the ability to scrutinise foundations dispassionately. A subtext to much ancient Greek philosophy was the decline of Athenian democracy, a superficially unlikely concern even in Plato’s Symposium but one present to any adequately careful reading of a dialogue ostensibly about love. One cannot certainly cannot read Thucydides rightly without due attention to the reserved commentary on Athens and her fate from one of her own citizens. Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ was published twenty-five years ago in the United States. Its analytical critique of the decline in American public debate and institutions sliding from the pursuit of excellence to the levelling of a relativistically-rooted egalitarianism sparked prolonged discussion from philosophical journals through the magazines of higher journalism to the public who purchased the volume in sufficient numbers to keep it on the bestseller lists for over a year. France routinely examines the character and functionality of its democracy and at present is doing so through the prism of a problematic presidential election campaign.

The difficulty for democratic polities in discussing the health of their public debate and political institutions is the possibility of negative verdicts. The alternative is to persist with unsatisfactory situations.

The Ireland of April 2012 presents a case in point. Controlling neither fiscal nor monetary matters, circumscribed in many other domains by EU or by unwise treaty obligations, the Republic exists only in a residual and incomplete sense. It does not exist insofar as providing for any meaningful manner of self-government.

Rather than elucidate the moral consequences of surrendering self-government, public debate is concentrated at this moment on a number of minor changes to the tax codes; there have been similar distractions before, as there will be others to come. When not even budgets are set in Dublin and the Republic’s ability to finance itself remains in jeopardy, these do not merit more than a moment’s attention. Yet Ireland is focusing its public energies on what amount to no more than footnotes to details.

These priorities highlight deficiencies. There is the deficiency of a public sphere in which the space for higher reflection on fundamental questions of national self-constitution does not have sufficient space. There is the deficiency of an electorate whose members view themselves unworthily as servant supplicants of a bankrupt State. There is a gross failure of leadership from a political class which has spent several decades preening its cosmopolitan credentials by means of enthusiasm for the European project, an enthusiasm which has trumped Ireland’s national-interest at multiple junctures and which continues today to prevent, through a straightforwardly ideological commitment to defeated nostrums, necessary reflection on the very question of national-interest.

Self-government is fragile and it is always an achievement. The absence of self-government is the absence of healthy self-respect on the political level and the absence of a context in which the particular political virtues have full breadth for expression.

The extent to which this is the fault of the Irish populace, rather than the consequence of a set of mistakes by individuals in positions of responsibility, is the most urgent question in Irish public debate and it is the most egregious for being unasked.

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