Sunday, January 22, 2006

Leben und leben lassen

After yesterday I ended up thinking what makes the portrayal of Weimar Berlin decadence so powerful in Cabaret. More significant than the fairly slightly story itself would lead one to expect - obviously the viewer knows what dark fate is waiting all this, and powerful, mostly understated hints are given throughout the movie, but even beyond this quite self evident fact there is something centrally moving in the tale. I think that what is so skillfully portrayed there is in fact the heart of liberalism: it is not situated in dry englightenment rationality, though that is the intellectual foundation of it, the intellectual formulation of it. What we have is a muddled tolerance of variety, a tragic celebration of human potential amidst a bitterly funny satire of its actual, brutal constrictions. To state this so directly loses some of the purely hedonistic side of this particular liberal celebration but that I would argue is even in its most apolitical form infinitely better - and wiser - than the primitive religion or ideology that always aim for brutal control of these impulses. That aim for brutal control of whatever human activity.

Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists did not live and they did not let live. In this they are indistinguishable from the modern religious fundamentalists. That is the totalitarian connection that unites them all. That is also why such an issue as sexual rights are not a peripheral question for modern Liberalism, but a a central one: if we are anything in these fallen days it is an uncompromising movement of emancipation. Some would say that there is a contradiction here, that there can't be "uncompromising tolerance" but for me there is no contradiction at all: Liberalism is the arrangement, the only arrangement, that wants to keep people permanently free - we cannot compromise with those that would end that permanent state of uncertainty, that space of liberty. We can let people to choose to join primitive sects or insane political movements, but we cannot let these sects and these movements end the freedom to choose them. Without this limit tolerance would be empty of meaning, and this was the limit broken in the 1930's Berlin. I suspect, admittedly in totally different circumstances, that this position is fairly undefended also today - should there be a storm gathering would the line hold at all? Where is now the actual liberal self-confidence and conviction should it be needed? We have the forms left, but not much content.


helsinkian said...

Your comments on Weimar Germany made me think of the prospect of a Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. If they would win, it would not be the first time in history that in a crisis situation voters turn toward the illiberal, undemocratic alternative. Could Hamas even get into power with just a third of the vote?

Should violent movements that threaten the democratic system be allowed to take over the reins of government? Ideologically Hamas is rooted in the tradition of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and close to the religious worldview of bin Laden and associates. I could take other examples from other countries but the Messianic appearance of Hamas in Palestinian politics has so many of the paradoxes of extreme right so clearly visible that I can't help but to think of Weimar Germany.

Of course, the Nazis were quite a secular nationalist movement whereas Hamas have a worldwide name recognition because they are the poster boys and girls of violent religious extremism. But still, much of their rhetoric is the same old fascist stuff about law and order, jobs for everybody and no corruption (which party wouldn't support those goals that ironically form the bedrock of democracy...) - nothing surprising in such a rhetoric if it weren't for the paradox of the lawless masquerading as supporters of the law.

I don't know the result yet and I sure hope Hamas won't win. But they're there to undermine the democratic process that has just started. If a Palestinian civil society is to flourish, it has to be based on pluralism. Hamas is the party that rejects pluralism and supports the destruction of Israel. They're the war party, the party of religious intolerance and the party that will halt progress in Palestinian society. If they win it won't be just because of Palestinian hatred of Israel, it's smooth Hamas demagoguery and a strong political organization, an ability to use the democratic process in order to destabilize it.

This has always been the classic dilemma of democracy, what to do with capable smooth-talking politicians who work night and day to thwart the political system they're part of and to deprive everyone else of their rights? It used to be the Nazis and the Communists and now it's these extreme religious parties running the same old show again. Hamas is out there to repeat much of the strategy of these previous totalitarian movements as it is much more than just a group of religious extremists.

I believe the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace is now closer than ever. Peace would benefit the Palestinians incredibly; I'm sure it's what they want. Yet now Hamas, the party of war, is aiming to get into government. It is ironic how much a democratic election can stall a peace process, if unrelenting opponents of peace make a strong showing in elections. This is the dilemma for our day as it was in the day of Hitler.

Anonymous said...

The pendulum has this unavoidable habit that it will start swinging back when it reaches the other extreme.

stockholm slender said...

Well, the essential point to me is how wrong enlightenment got democracy. It saw people as natural citizens that only needed to be released from the irrational bonds of the premodern society. But the people themselves were irrational: we got Robespierre feeding victims to the guillotine and all the assorted horrors of the last 200 hundred years. Now we have hastily retreated from the whole attempt - we have parties, but they are not relevant to social change: that is mostly determined by the market place. In many ways we are a cruel mockery of what great thinkers once dreamed about.