Memory, Myth, and Political Mayhem

Ian Buruma Says More...

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Project Syndicate: In 2019, you wrote that politicians who whip up “tribal hatreds” and encourage “the hooligan spirit” do serious damage to liberal democracy. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol, spurred by then-President Donald Trump, was a quintessential example of a political leader making people “feel licensed to violate all norms of civilized behavior.” A year later, do you think any progress has been made toward recorking the genie? Or is the focus on the “deplorable” behavior of some still distracting from the problems that Trump exploited?

Ian Buruma: I do not think the genie has been recorked at all. The lie that the election was “stolen” from Trump still has more than 60% of Republican voters convinced. Groups that believe that the country is being taken away from them, or that white Americans are being “replaced” by minorities and immigrants of color, view violence as a legitimate way to fight back. Trump’s re-election would, in their minds, give them license to act on that perception. Three retired US generals have warned of another, more serious insurrection – and “lethal chaos” within the US military – in 2024. That is why all democrats – and not just Democrats – must take every legal step possible to reduce the chances of such an outcome. To focus on the “deplorable” behavior of mobs may be a distraction, but to hold people who manipulate and spur them on accountable is essential.

PS: Last February, you predicted that US President Joe Biden’s “lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength.” A “brilliant or heroic man,” which Biden is not, would be less likely than a “skilled political operator,” which he is, to deliver the new New Deal that the United States needs. And, in terms of legislation, Biden has indeed accomplished far more than Trump, despite much smaller congressional majorities. But with his approval rating sinking, how might Americans be convinced that they need a Neville Chamberlain – not a Winston Churchill – to lead them through today’s crises?

IB: First of all, a Churchill is the last thing the US needs right now. Churchill was inspiring in war, but his leadership style was not at all suited to peace. While Biden’s approval rating is low now, that probably mostly reflects surging COVID-19 infections and steadily climbing inflation. Once the pandemic is under control and inflation comes down, his popularity may well again start rising. Alas, this may not happen before next year’s midterm elections.

In any case, I don’t think it would be wise for Biden, who is 79, to run for a second term in 2024. By making room for a younger candidate, he would be doing his country – and the world – a great service.

PS: One leader who does fancy himself a modern-day Churchill, you wrote in September, is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This “Churchill complex,” as you call it in your eponymous book, suggests that he may be susceptible to an “instinctive fondness for the special relationship” with the US that “has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars.” In the post-Brexit age, what alternatives to its “fixation” on the special relationship does Britain have?

IB: In many ways, the damage of Brexit has already been done, though the British economy will continue to suffer. Freedom of movement has been blocked, for British citizens who want to work abroad and Europeans who want to work in Britain, and relations with Britain’s European neighbors have soured. As a recent poll showed, this is not what most British people want.

I agree with French President Emmanuel Macron that Europe should become less dependent on the US for its security. After all, Britain is much less important to the US than nostalgia for the special relationship implies. And the idea of the United Kingdom as an “Indo-Pacific” power is laughable.

Britain is no longer part of the European Union, but it is still part of Europe. It should therefore cooperate more closely with France, the only other European country with some military clout. The sooner the UK and the EU devise a friendly and cooperative modus vivendi, the better.

PS: You have often shown how historical narratives – from China’s “century of humiliation” to Chamberlain’s “cowardly” appeasement of Nazi Germany – drive international politics today. How can the power of such potent narratives be overcome or channeled in a way that promotes long-term peace and stability in hotspots like Taiwan and Ukraine?

IB: As long as political leaders continue to use such narratives to whip up nationalist sentiment, the power of these myths cannot be overcome. But, for many leaders, this is the only way to gain or stay in power. Indeed, for this to change, regimes in countries like Russia and China would have to become less authoritarian and more responsive to a diverse range of public opinion, and Western countries – first and foremost the US – would have to repair their democracies.

I do believe that Chamberlain’s ghost has been laid to rest, at least for a while; Americans do not seem to be in the mood for another war. But, of course, a number of factors – not least the behavior of Russia and China – could cause this to change. I am not optimistic that authoritarianism in those countries will be relaxed soon.

By the Way…

PS: Your 2012 book Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents highlights the challenge religion poses to secular politics. What would it take to “tame” religion in a country like the US? Conversely, does the French principle of laïcité, which often thwarts religious expression in the name of strict secularism, offer a useful model?

IB: The US should stick to the separation of church and state established in its constitution. The great irony of recent US history is that longstanding (though never uncontested) arrangements put in place by the Protestant founding fathers to keep religious authority apart from political authority are being challenged not only by Protestant Evangelicals, but increasingly by right-wing Catholics, including at least four Supreme Court justices, a former attorney general (William Barr), and a far-right activist (Steve Bannon).

The French principle of laïcité was originally designed to keep the Catholic Church from interfering in the Republic. So, given current events in the US, it might seem to be a useful model. But I don’t actually think that it is. Unlike in France, the American approach to the separation of church and state was designed to protect not only the integrity of secular institutions, but also the autonomy of religious institutions. This is one of the fundamental differences between the American and the French Revolutions.

PS: Your 2015 book The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan suggests that, whereas Germans have largely come to terms with the darkest chapters of their history, Japan still has some way to go. Recent efforts in Western countries to reckon with legacies of slavery and colonialism have proved highly controversial, with the US debate over “critical race theory” being a case in point. Much has been written about what Germany has done right since World War II, but what has Japan – or even Germany – done wrong? And does the post-WWII experience hold any useful lessons for the racial reckoning unfolding today?

IB: To be clear, when we say that “Germany” has dealt relatively well with its Nazi past, we mean the former German Federal Republic, not the German Democratic Republic. In any case, I’m not sure there are many useful lessons for addressing the racial tensions in the US.

Germany and Japan had to repair relations with countries they had once occupied, and with a people Germans had tried to exterminate. They also had to make efforts to educate ordinary people about their recent past, with mixed results. But neither the Germans nor the Japanese – nor the countries they occupied – are still living with any serious socioeconomic fallout from WWII. Few Jews live in Germany, and the ones who do are not oppressed. Social problems in the country’s east are the result not of Nazism, but of Communism.

The situation is quite different in the US, where the legacy of slavery still affects the lives and attitudes of descendants of slaves, and of the white population. Ritual gestures, financial compensation, or ideological education – whether “critical race theory” or anything else – will not fix this. The only way out is action – for example, ensuring that Black citizens have access to better schools, housing, and employment opportunities. Only when Black Americans have the same chance for a decent life as everyone else will the situation improve.

PS: In 2019, you reflected on the outcry over your decision, as editor of the New York Review of Books, to publish an article by Jian Ghomeshi, an accused rapist. Using an example from your book Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance, you highlighted the difference between supporting the free speech of someone challenging a powerful institution and that of someone attacking a vulnerable minority. Arguably, this observation goes a long way toward explaining the backlash against giving a platform to Ghomeshi. Is there a principled way that editors and others who shape public discourse can ensure that free expression does not perpetuate invidious power dynamics?

IB: I would not have given Ghomeshi a platform if he had been attacking a vulnerable minority. He was not attacking anyone. He wrote a personal account of his social punishment after being found innocent in court. This was an issue that interested me. Whether such an account perpetuates invidious power dynamics is a matter of opinion, which can be debated. I believe that an editor or writer should be free to publish something that is contentious or controversial, and people should be free to criticize it. But that writer or editor should not lose his or her job.

PS: Walter Benjamin wrote that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Your 2014 book Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film, and the Shadows of War could be read as an extended meditation on this dialectic. Which contemporary artists or artworks do you think succeed in sublimating humans’ seemingly unlimited capacity for barbarism?

IB: The Holocaust stands for the worst barbarism of the twentieth century. Much of Anselm Kiefer’s art deals with the legacy of that indelible crime in Germany. Of all the films that tried to grasp the horrors of WWII, I think Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) comes closest to succeeding. As far as sublimated violence is concerned, I think Quentin Tarantino’s films, though of uneven quality, are a good example.

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