European Integration Must Not be Reversed

Flag of Europe (consisting of the emblem of the European Union) © various users | Wikimedian Commons

As an American, but one very familiar with Central and Eastern Europe, I believe that integrated Europe is extremely important for several reasons. First of all, it is important for maintaining peace and stability, and thus, for overcoming terrible legacies of the Second World War, so devastating to Europe and the rest of the world. Secondly, European Union plays a crucial role in creating economic opportunities for all of its members. The current crisis should not make us forget how prosperous Europe is and can still be. Thirdly, European integration might be a driving force behind a process of creating broader sense of political identity. Europeans have so many different cultures and nationalities and there is a need to bring them together, so that they have some shared sense of community. Any European project has to take this into account, but at the same time create means for people to cultivate their own national identity at the local level.

The process of European integration has gone through a number of changes since the early 1990s. Some of them were very encouraging, and some problematic. The first dramatic change occurred right after 1989, when the long-lasting Soviet domination over a large part of the continent collapsed and many nations suddenly had to reinvent their states, drawing upon their own democratic traditions. In Poland or Czechoslovakia, as it then was, i.e. countries with some history and strong feelings for democracy, this transformation proceeded quite smoothly. In other states it was less clear on what traditions new institutions should be built. In Hungary, where I now live, there have been strong democratic traditions, but also strong authoritarian traditions, dating back to the Habsburg era. The same is certainly true of Romania, Bulgaria and other countries in the Central and Eastern Europe. These were the initial challenges, later developing in the 1990s.

At that time there were two major steps, Eastern Europeans were eager to take in order to revive and develop their democratic traditions. The first one was the NATO accession. Joining . . .

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Spring Break with Daniel Dayan: the politics of small things meets the politics of even smaller things

small things meets smaller things © Naomi Gruson Goldfarb

I recently returned from a very enjoyable and very fruitful week in Paris, combining business with pleasure. I spent time with family, and also enjoyed a series of meetings with my dear friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan. We continued our long-term discussions and debates, moving forward to a more concerted effort, imagining more focused work together. His semiotical approach to power will inform my sociological approach and visa versa, with Roland Barthes, Victor Turner, Hannah Arendt and Erving Goffman as our guides. At least that is one way I am thinking about it now. Or as Daniel put it a while back in an earlier discussion: my politics of small things will combine with his analysis of the politics of even smaller things.

We had three meetings in Paris, a public discussion with his media class at Science Po, an extended working breakfast and lunch at two different Parisian cafés, and a beautiful dinner at his place, good food and talk throughout. I fear I haven’t properly thanked him for his wonderful hospitality.

At Sciences Po, Dayan presented a lecture to his class and I responded. This followed a format of public discussion we first developed in our co-taught course at The New School in 2010. He spoke about his theory of media “monstration,” how the media show, focusing attention of a socially constituted public. He highlighted the social theory behind his, pointing to Axel Honneth on recognition and Nancy Fraser’s critique of Honneth, Michel Foucault on the changing styles of visibility: from spectacle to surveillance, Luc Boltanski on the mediation of distant suffering and especially J. L. Austin on speech acts.

At the center of Dayan’s interest is his metaphor of “the media as the top of the iceberg.” He imagines a society’s life, people showing each other things, as involving a great complexity of human actions and interactions, mostly submerged below the surface of broad public perception, not visible for public view. The . . .

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An American in Paris: Thinking about France, Taxes and the Good Life

Café "les deux magots" Paris, France ©  Robyn Lee | Flickr

At a Sixteenth Arrondissement party soon after I arrived in Paris in late 1984, I was cornered by a tipsy Frenchman who repeatedly exclaimed–in a tone more resigned than angry–“You’ve won! You’ve won.”  This was all he would say, elaborations and explanations apparently being unnecessary.

Once I began to look for them, signs of American triumph were everywhere: Carl Lewis’s Olympics a few months before, Reagan’s enthusiastic re-election a few weeks before, and a sense that personal computers coming from garages in Silicon Valley would displace the tiny Minitel terminals linked to a central network for which the French had instead opted (a prescient model, but ten years before the internet could have made real use of them). After several months in Paris, I realized this handwringing was a daily theme in the Parisian press: the United States had won the economic game.

The idea was everywhere: the news detailed France’s economic crisis and America’s ascendency; top journalists and other members of the intelligentsia analyzed how France had gotten into its sad state; academics wrote books setting the crisis in world-historical context; politicians spun grandiose plans for pulling France out of its malaise. But no one took the schemes of the politicians seriously: the crisis, everyone knew, was there to stay. Thus Le Monde‘s annual report on the economic state of the world in early 1985 had on its cover a tiny boat, its sail in disarray, about to drop from the crest of a wave, and a large ocean liner placidly moving along in the distance. The dinghy flew several European flags, the steamer those of Japan and the United States.

It was not just France: the entire “old world” was implicated. It was just that: old, weary, perhaps exhausted. Many French, if it fit their current political rhetoric, were fond of pointing out that France had done better than most European countries. The French were happy that they were not the Germans, the Swiss, or even the Swedes who had beaten them this time. It was America, which is after all America, and Japan, . . .

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Election in France: A European Roosevelt?

Francois Hollande, Jan.19, 2012 © Jean-Marc Ayrault | Wikimedia Commons

I write here about the election in France, but first must note that the most important European news this week very well may come from Greece. The legislative elections there clearly show the disastrous political consequences of hyper-austerity. They demonstrate that the European handling of the crisis has not only brought no remedy. It has aggravated the problem. The results of the Greek elections provide the context for understanding politics in Europe, including France.

In France, François Hollande’s victory did not come as a surprise, but the nature of the victory indicates fundamental changes in the political landscape. The unexpected element was the relatively low margin of victory. He received only 51.6% of the votes after having led constantly in the polls, approaching 60% at times. Sarkozy’s far-right accented campaign shocked the so-called “Republican right,” leading the center right leader François Bayrou to vote for Holland in the second round of the election. It did, though significantly, enable Sarkozy to win substantial  support from those who voted for the far-rightist Marine Le Pen in the first round. This needs deliberate consideration.

Sarkozy’s hyper-nationalist, openly anti-European and strongly anti-Islam stance during the last days of the campaign ominously has reunited the right on an ideological basis. Of course, Sarkozy’s neo-nationalist turn was partly tactical, but now there is a real possibility of a dialogue between the far-rightist National Front and the “Republican” right (the President’s party UMP). The so-called “droite populaire,” a part of the UMP that claims 70 députés in the Assemblée nationale, is not against talking to Le Pen. The new ideological horizon for the French right is undoubtedly one of the most important consequences of the presidential election. Sarkozy has played the nationalist and anti-Islam card with an unexpected dedication, particularly if one recalls his attitude during the first years of his presidency, when he practiced the “ouverture” to the left and to ethnic minorities, appointing the French-Senegalese Rama Yade and the French-North Africans, . . .

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The French Presidential Election: In Search of Time Past

Election Posters French Presidential Election 2012 © PJean Christophe Benoist | Wikimedia Commons

Just before the Sofitel Affair brutally ended his political career, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the director of the IMF, was considered as the great favorite of the French presidential election, and François Hollande, who had started earlier his bid for the primary polls organized for the first time on the left by the Socialist Party, was not taken seriously, particularly in his own camp. Nicknamed Flanby, Little Gouda, or even “couilles molles” (soft testicles) by his socialist contender Martine Aubry, Hollande very well may be the unexpected winner of the competition, on May 6th, the final round of the French election. Although it has been a boring campaign, it also has been very interesting sociologically.

Strauss-Kahn embodied a center-left version of the “there is no alternative” line, smoothed by a reputation, acquired in happier times, of a rare economic competency that would alleviate the inescapable rigor ahead. Roughly, President Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn shared the same views. The President had backed the very moderate socialist for the job at the IMF, and they navigated in very close social and economic circles.

But now, one can see almost every day a sea of red flags and an amazing number of raised fists during the Front de Gauche candidate’s electoral meetings, from the Place de la Bastille in Paris to the Prado beaches in Marseilles. Enthusiastic crowds appreciate the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon‘s tough rhetoric: his speeches are loaded with the most traditional items of the radical camp with a very strong French flavor (a daily celebration of the Bastille Day, but also of 1793 and Robespierre). Mélenchon’s fondness for Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro and the Chinese communist leaders does not seem to bother any of his increasingly young and socially mixed supporters. Mélenchon’s rise has totally reshuffled the campaign, that had started with Sarkozy taking up extreme right-wing issues (mainly immigration and security) and Hollande not saying much as he was so far ahead in the polls that he seemed to be afraid of taking any side that would . . .

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Presumed Innocence

DSK's apartment on 153 Franklin St, New York City © 2011 Patsw | Wikimedia Commons

In France, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn “presumed innocent” until proven guilty? In fact, he is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Or worse, he is presumed guilty, until confirmed guilty since the French media usually expect courts to confirm their own “enlightened” judgment and can be extraordinarily vindictive when they don’t. Thus, a petition signed by thousands of journalists “condemning” the court that condemned the national French TV Channel Antenne II for broadcasting unsubstantiated allegations. This post is about the media treatment of the presumption of innocence.

Consider a driver who deliberately speeds and runs over a policeman in front of a crowd of witnesses in order to avoid being checked at a road block. The driver is described in the news as the “presumed” author of the policeman’s coma. The word “presumed” here is a language automatism, an adornment, a legal curlicue. There is not a shadow of a doubt that this driver‘s car hit the policeman. No matter how grotesque, the word “presumed” tends to be repeated in such situations “ad nauseaum.”

With DSK, we are in a situation where the presumption of innocence matters because the facts are not established. Despite various forms of lip service, this presumption is resolutely trampled. In a recent talk show about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, stand-up comedian Michel Boujenah expressed uneasiness about the fact that most of the journalists around him started from the premise that DSK was guilty. He reminded them that DSK had to be considered innocent until proven guilty. “Yes, yes,” said the journalists. Then they went on with their debate. To them, the presumption of innocence was an annoying contrivance, something akin to the presence of a vocal anti-racist at certain dinner parties; a presence that proves annoying since it prevents guests from cracking race jokes. The stand-up comedian reiterated his remark. He was definitely spoiling the fun. “OK,” replied one journalist, just add an “if” to everything I say. Just put my words in the conditional!” Then he resumed the discussion as if the guilt of DSK was beyond any doubt.

Ferry’s bomb

Such a contempt for the presumption of innocence serves as a background for a “public-sphere-bomb” that has just been thrown in the ongoing debate about Dominique Strauss-Kahn by the philosopher and former Minister of Education Luc Ferry.

In another talk-show watched by millions, Luc Ferry denounced a . . .

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