Tuesday, November 17, 2015

'Europe is Kaput. Long live Europe!' at the South Bank Centre, 16th November 2015

The Paris atrocity has drawn many worms from the mud. Stomping over the backs of murdered civilians come the nationalists, racists, authoritarians and warmongers. Hurrying to meet violence with violence, they're quick to demonise Muslims of all stripes, blame refugees and explain that, beyond all doubt, the best solution to ISIS is to drop thousands of high-explosive bombs on an already beleaguered Syria. 

Naturally these events dominated the discussion between philosopher Slavoj Žižek and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. The evening was chaired by Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat and featured a surprise appearance by Julian Assange, appearing via videolink from the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Both Žižek and Varoufakis are fearless speakers - their arguments laid down on firm ideological bedrock. Both are quick to mourn the deaths and decry the perpetrators as "ISIS thugs", but they come with a passionate critique of mawkish sentimentalism and knee-jerk reacionts. Achingly public displays of grief - like overlaying the French flag on your Facebook pictures - is merely a trite display of vanity, an effort to prove the veracity of your liberal empathy.

Varoufakis explains how he was asked to observe a minute's silence in memory of the 129 murdered in Paris. Of course, a moment's quiet remembrance for them is appropriate, but where's the silent remembrance for the bombings in Beirut two days before that claimed 43 lives, or the suicide blasts in Baghdad that killed 26? Both men criticise a Western insularity that's assembled from race, religion, class and economics.

Žižek refers to this as Europe's glass "cupola". He argues that the Western perspective on world events is almost completely insulated. We're aware of third-world atrocities yet we experience them at extreme distance, tempered by the gloss of media interpretation. Atrocities, chaos and societal collapse are something that happens to other (usually non-white) people - who subconsciously dismiss them as the 'other'. Events like Paris shatter the cupola, rudely awakening us as to what it's like to live under the shadow of the suicide bomber and the masked gunman. 

Theoretically attacks like these should encourage an empathy with those in wartorn countries. If even the briefest taste of carnage repels us to this degree, then logically we should redouble our efforts into ensuring that violence ends - whether in Beirut or Paris. Depressingly the opposite happens. All too easily the media whip up a xenophobic panic, and soon even the most milquetoast liberal thinks paranoid thoughts when they see a man with brown-skin carrying a large bag on public transport.

In one of the most cogent points of the evening, Žižek identifies the cruel irony in the blame and suspicion that was immediately heaped upon Syrian refugees. These are people who have lost almost everything to the violent theocratic fascism of ISIS, choosing to flee, often with just the clothes on their back, across oceans and along lonely rain-swept roads in the hope of finding a safe haven in Europe. They arrive and instantly the very thing they were escaping overtakes them.

Varoufakis' and Žižek's arguments are layered with internationalist universalism. At one point the argument that we should care about the Syrian refugees because "they're just like us" is bashed to smithereens by the simple retort: "Well what if they weren't like us? Would that make it okay not to care?"

Inevitably we crawl towards the thorniest issue for the modern left - what the hell do we do about this? When faced with bombs and guns its instinctive to reach for our own weapons, vowing to enact bloody retribution on those behind this. Yet, as Varoufakis explains, this is precisely what ISIS want: the organisation arises from and thrives in the chaos of military campaigns - even Tony Blair admits that the failed invasion of Iraq provided the perfect incubation chamber them.

Even if impersonal destruction from the sky didn't directly fuel their propaganda its military effectiveness is questionable at best. ISIS are a mobile force disseminated over a wide area and firmly embedded into civilian populations - how are we eliminate them from a mile up without also killing the very people we're ostensibly trying to liberate? This then feeds into their propaganda of Muslim nations being persecuted by the cruel West.

Their answer is to identify the European traditions that most strongly define us: socialism, feminism, free thought, free press and democracy and then ally ourselves with those fighting for that in their countries . This is the one area in the night where the rhetoric got a little flaky - it's all too easy to say all this - putting into practice is different kettle of fish. Personally, I don't know what the hell should be done about ISIS, but recent history teaches us that sending tens of thousands of pounds of high explosive raining down on the Middle East is going to achieve precisely fuck all.

Paris wasn't the only topic under discussion; the rangy three hour discussion encompassed European monetary policy, Israel/Palestine, TTIP, the rise of high-tech liberalism in Silicon Valley and the origins of the European Union. All three men: Varoufakis, Žižek and Assange made novel, intelligent points about contemporary Europe that help clear the mind of the gunk that accumulates after time spent inadvertently absorbing the opinions of vast corporate conglomerates.

A hell of an enjoyable night - and a much needed one.

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