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What is left to believe in? What is left to believe in?
by Bouke S. Nagel
2013-01-09 11:29:03
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Recently, OVI-contributor Christos Mouzeviris started a discussion about the supposed role of generations in regard to the financial crisis. I would like to join the debate by presenting this article in which I would like to explore the experiences of a generation born between 1930-1950. Although I do not agree with every decision that was made in the recent past, I believe there is much to be grateful for. 

„Die Menschen haben Spätzündung. Vieles versteht erst die nächste Generation.“

Willi Ritschard, Swiss politician

For me history is examining the lives of human beings and choices that were made in often difficult circumstances. It leads to understanding, acceptance, gratefulness and sometimes even forgiveness by acknowledging that choices are measured by looking at alternative outcomes. In this article I would like to explore the experiences of a generation born between 1930 - 1950 which play an important role in the rapid development of the EU at the end of the last century. Although I do not agree with every decision that was made in the recent past, I believe there is much to be grateful for.  

Suppose that you are born in the 1930s in Germany or another part of Europe. During the summer your parents send you to a communist or national-socialist holiday camp. Over there you are taught the teachings of these secular faiths. War erupts, your city is bombed, there isn’t enough food and one or even both of your parents die. After the war, you are told that your faith (Nazism) is false, that your country not only is to be blamed for the war but also committed atrocities unheard of. What kind impact would these experiences have on your development as a human being?

Also suppose that you have a younger brother or sister born in the 1940s. These children can be seen in the news reports of Syria these days (scared beings in the arms of their mothers who run on the streets trying to seek shelter from violence). Such children are orphaned as well because millions of fathers do not return from the war. One of the first television programs they see during the sixties is the trial against Eichmann, which makes them question their parents. If I were to belong to this generation, I assume it is like having someone pulling the rug from under my feet.

At the end of the seventies George Lucas (born 1944) made a trilogy about the experiences of this generation. In Star Wars we see two children living in a dictatorship. One of these children grows up in poverty. The other one is witness to genocide committed by the dictator´s army. In the second movie one of the children discovers that their father, dressed in SS-black, is a henchman bound to obey every order that is given to him. In the third movie the dictator makes his first appearance in a scene that could have been shot by Leni Riefenstahl herself. Does this story sound familiar to you?

Your parents are accomplices. Your country ceases to exist (Prussia) or is occupied (Eastern-Europe and Germany). Perhaps it assisted in the horrors that transpired during the war (e.g. Holland, Vichy France and Italy). Empires start to crumble (Britain and France). One secular faith perished (fascism) and one of the pillars of Western civilization turns out to be a primary source of anti-Semitism that the Nazis used to stir up hate against Jews (Christianity). Besides a destructive arms race, humanity has a negative impact on the eco-system of this planet. How would that make you feel?

European culture seems to be defined by guilt. Post-war European history emphasizes historical sins such as slavery, colonialism, sexism, capitalism, ecological destruction, world wars and the Holocaust. It almost seems as if Western civilization is portrayed as an evil in itself. And it cannot be a surprise that post-war historians describe our ancestors (or parents) as criminals. Therefore, I think it is no coincidence either that post-war European philosophy or postmodernism tells us that truth does not exist and states that all is relative to everything. What is left to believe in?   

The generation traumatized by the war in their youth committed itself to the Left during the sixties. So when communism collapsed in 1989 it lost yet again something to believe in. Even worse was the impact of the war in former Yugoslavia. Images of skeleton like people in camps appeared in the media and on top of that genocide was committed in Rwanda and Srebrenica. When this generation came to power in Europe at the end of the last century, the demons of their youth reared their ugly heads again which must have confirmed their worst fears about human nature.

Since these demons are in all of us, this generation made use of its position and power, which is temporary granted to each generation once, to strip European nation states of sovereignty. In doing so they took power away from citizens. In my home country Holland for example the word citizen was replaced by the word customer. This means that people are seen as beings that enjoy services of the state without having ownership of institutions that are vital to our society. So my guess is that the revolutionaries of ’68 turned into reactionaries at the end of the last century.

What do the former hippies believe in? This generation experienced the miracle of the economic recovery during the sixties. Having also received excellent education (the historian Tony Judt boasts in his final book that his generation was the last to receive meritocratic education) and being witness of a man taking a first step on the moon, I assume there is faith in science. And there is fear. In 2005 that much became clear during the referenda for the Lisbon-Treaty. It was said that wars would erupt if people were to vote no. These experiences are incorporated into the EU-flag.  

The color gold represents the economy in which an invisible hand, once described by Adam Smith, is supposed to be the hand of God himself. So the market appears to be our new sacred cow in Europe. The color blue represents faith in rationalism, in a centralized government being able to calculate the optimal size and shape of society, being able to engineer our future. Technocracy is the expression of that faith. The color that is purposely left out of the flag is red, symbolizing love or people, which suggests that citizens aren’t involved in developing the EU.

I cannot blame anyone in the EU for being skeptical about democratization after the horrors of a not so distant past. Technocracy is cool and clean and does not require people to take responsibility for their society which gives it the illusion of being risk-free, provided we accept that our futures will be shaped by benign elites, as was done by the aristocracy before world war one. Europe therefore seems to have lost more than homes and lives sixty years ago because the war had a tremendous impact on our spirit as well.

So things had to change after the war. This leads us to the positive aspects of the sixties and seventies because the generation of 30-50 helped to improve the rights of women, colored people and gays. We can be grateful for their accomplishments in regard to human rights. We can also thank them for facing Europe’s dark past head-on and deal with issues such as historical guilt. I believe a lot of good happened over the past decades for which we can be grateful. The generation of 30-50 helped to create a better world and they made Europe a better place to be.

We should acknowledge the fact that the younger generations in present day Europe did not grow up in bombed cities or experience poverty in slums after the war like the generation of 30-50. The younger generations also did not have to storm the beaches of Normandy and they certainly did not experience frostbite or worse during the campaign in Russia like the generation of 1912-1922. That doesn’t mean however that the crisis of today can be ignored because it will have a tremendous impact on the young in Europe.

Many of them are leaving their country. Today, parents advise their children to go to Canada, the U.S. or Australia. People in Portugal are even moving to Angola. Those who leave will face the hardships of immigration which will affect their children who feel that they are torn between two cultures. Those who stay will face austerity and poverty. In Spain for example where people are evicted from their homes right now. Even in Germany most states are in severe financial troubles which doesn’t look good at all. It seems that families in Europe will be disrupted once again.

What can we do in these uncertain times? This Christmas, I was given two dices. It reminded me of the story of Julius Caesar who crossed the Rubicon in an era in which the Roman Republic was highly unstable. He broke a sacred rule and took a huge risk by doing what he did. He acknowledged that fact by stating that he rolled his dice (“alea iacta est”) and was bound to face the outcome of his actions. At the end of the last century the dices have been rolled as well and now we are faced with a severe crisis.

Despite the current problems in our world, we can thank the previous generations for doing their best in preventing an outcome that could have been ten times worse. I’d rather face this crisis than nuclear war between the US and the USSR for example. So it doesn’t make sense to analyze the crisis in our climate system and blame people in the 1890s for releasing too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, just as it doesn’t make sense to blame those who advocated a speculative form of capitalism at the end of the last century. The past cannot be undone which brings me to you.

Do you spend your time pondering over conspiracy theories in which greedy capitalists, bad credit agencies and evil bankers destroy our world (or aliens from Mars for that matter)? In that case you believe that we are dealing with a severe societal economic pneumonia. Perhaps we need to put some bankers behind bars. Perhaps we need to adjust the system with new regulations and aid countries with transfers from one part of Europe to another. Perhaps we also need to fix our state budgets by severe cutbacks. The crisis will sort itself out after ten years or so.

It is also possible that you spend your time thinking how the world will look like when multiple superpowers emerge such as Brazil, India and China. In that case you believe that we are dealing with a system failure. The problem is outdated societal software in combination with interface issues as a result of a changed environment. Our societal software therefore needs to be rewritten and changes need to be implemented in order for the system to function properly in a post-industrial world. We have to reassess our values which means that we need to examine our assumptions or beliefs.

I believe that democracy is not what we have been told at school. It isn´t a system in which we have the right to vote. It is much more. To me it represents faith in the capacity of human beings to be good, despite humanity´s pitfalls. To me it means trusting your neighbors and let them be at peace. Democracy to me is acknowledging that you yourself, as a human being, possess a unique creative potential. So how can society function properly without your gifts? Democracy is the belief in human dignity by recognizing the sovereignty of human beings through full citizenship. 

Otherwise put: democracy is a calculated risk. It means putting a bet on the talents, aspirations and virtues of our fellow citizens. The Swiss for example are prone to bet on themselves through direct democracy and it seems to pay off since their country is one the few places in Europe where trains still run on time. And that is strange because most other European countries made a bet that society is better off when run by a class of professional politicians instead of citizens. So I am going to take a chance with the Christmas dices, given to me by someone from Switzerland, and roll them on you.

What do you believe?l


Further references:

- Bernardo Bertolucci, Novocento, The United States of America, 1976.

- Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt, An essay on Western Masochism, Princeton University Press, 2010.

- Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Penguin Books, London, 2012, p. 729.

- Saskia Dekkers, 24 miljoen werklozen in de EU, In: Nieuwsuur, 02.02.2012.

- Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Die politische Enteignung der Europäer, In: Der Hauptstadtbrief, 06.09.2012.

- Georg Diez, Habermas, The last European, A philosopher’s mission to save the EU, In: Der Spiegel, November 25, 2011.

- Henneke Hagen e.a., Het brein van de bankier, In: Tegenlicht, 01.01.2013, 35:30-35:40.

- Bas Heijne, Hoop, In: NRC Handelsblad, 22 december 2012.

      - Tony Judt, Thinking the twentieth century, with Timothy Snyder, The Penguin Press, London, 2012, p. 111-115.

      - George Lucas, Star Wars, The United States of America, 1977.

      - Melanie Mühl, Krise in Griechenland, Eine Gesellschaft stürzt ins Bodenlose, In: Frankfurter Allgemeine, 15.12.2012.

      - Ken Robinson, Changing Education Paradigms, filmed by RSA Animate, In: TED, Ideas worth spreading, December 2010.

      - Dalibor Rohac, Dancing Around the Fiscal Cliff, In: International Herald Tribune, December 27, 2012, p. 8.

      - Warum noch an Europa glauben? Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck und Alt-Kanzler Helmut Schmidt bei Maybrit Illner, ZDF, 27.09.2012.


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Emanuel Paparella2013-01-09 15:12:50
This is a thoughtful and insightful article with much food for thought to chew on. Since it asks a question of its readers at the end, perhaps a few comments by way of dialogue are worth contributing here. This is what I believe.

In the first place I concur that “democracy is a calculated risk” for which all citizens are responsible, not just the elite ruling classes and politicians, more often than not corrupted by wealth and privilege. Which is to say, in a democracy we ultimately get the kind of government we deserve. Democracy is certainly more Aristotelian and messy than Platonic and ideal with an all-wise philosopher king on top. There are precious few Marcus Aureliuses in the history of Western civilization. Hence the importance of an educated citizenry. As Churchill put it: democracy is the worst kind of government, except for all the others.

It is indeed an exercise in futility to search for convenient scapegoats in past generations on whom to place the blame for all that is wrong presently, and the idea of direct democracy has great merit and may soon be viable via the internet enen in geographically big countries. Then we’ll have only ourselves to blame for.

The other excellent point made in the article is to remind us that we also need to look at the considerable good done by past generations and desist from going around as if only the last generation is all wise and capable of fixing societal problems having arrived at the end, since what arrives at the end of a process is always the best. I call that the fallacy of inevitable progress. It could also be the worst and it is up to us to determine what it really is by the light of reason. If nothing else, we, including the latest newest generation, could all learn much from the EU founding fathers; we could for instance learn that before embarking on the praxis, it is wise to engage in the theory and know whom we are; that is to say, to be clear eyed on what our authentic cultural identity and our goals are so that we don’t become the generation with “perfection of means and scarcity of purpose” to borrow Einstein’s words. That reflection on the EU flag is quite telling.

Finally, in my humble opinion, the most important statement of the article is this: “We need to reassess our values which means that we need to examine our assumptions and belief.” To challenge politically correct assumptions is of course always dangerous business, it irritated and ruffles feather and may lead one straight to the hemlock, but to muster the courage to do so is essential in a society that having been disappointed in all its former idols has put tried to assuage its guilty conscience by placing its faith in the sacred cows of science and technology, prosperity and money, while complacently deluding itself that they are sufficient by themselves. They are awfully inadequate. Kierkegaard called that fear the “existential dread” which is integral part of being human and remaining such. That existential dread leads directly to the examination of facile assumptions and a revisiting of one’s values individually and collectively. Its absence is a tragic symptom of dehumanization. It may be later than we think, but hopefully it is not too late.

Ruben2013-01-09 16:19:20
Great plot.

This article seems to forget that the 1930s was a time of secularism. The Nazi leaders did not like Christianity at all. Christianity was too Jewish for them:

The frame that Christianity was a basis of anti-semitism is false, responding to the 5th alinea: Christ, the apostles and the majority of the first Christians where Jews. The nazi movement discarded Christianity just like some christian institutions seem to have forgotten the Jewish roots of their faiths when committing attrocities in Poland and Spain.

Eva2013-01-10 12:50:53
This article left me hopeful. Thanks.
There's a lot of finger pointing going on in the world today, and that is so draining - no solutions, only "it was your fault".
I think way too few people have any kind of perspective on why things happen, or even bother trying to understand why - people have short memories and want instant change to everything.
I thought it was beautiful what you said about having faith in the good of humanity, despite everything. I hope to see and feel more of that in the future.

Michael2013-01-18 09:55:00
I believe in historical cyclicity ! The evolutionary cycle of growth & destruction. The frictional forces between social classes are both the engine for prosperity and wealth, as well as the cause for “renewal” by means of war & savagery, especially in the increasing competition for our planets depleting natural resources.

Right now us westerners live in a capitalist democracy, defined by American hegemony. I would suggest, this is currently in flux. China and other Asian nations the likely successors. Hence, "democracy" as a role model for the world, has a limited lifespan. Or does anyone believe the Chinese would adopt the Swiss model of direct-democracy ?

Having lived in Switzerland in the 90s, I completely concur with Mr. Nagel's summary of the past century through the Swiss prism. It is a very intelligent and thoughtful article. IMHO it doesn't stretch far enough in examining the root-cause of "the guilt" in Europe and its longevity. I suggest, there's an agenda by external forces to extend that guilt for their benefit. No doubt popular media & film and its originators have contributed to keeping the guilt “alive” under the guise of documenting/milking history for all its $$ worth.

Indeed, we need a "societal software" upgrade, but who do we trust this to ? Chinese "software" engineers ?

After all, this artitcle is titled “What is left to believe in ?”
Perpetual change, for better or worse, I say. All the “systems” we have ever believed in, as outlined in Mr. Nagel’s article, have eventually failed due to their inherent human flaws. The current generation always justifies it’s system & existence by denigrating those of the past, but in hindsight, none have proven stable “forever”. Mind you, the Romans had a really long run :)

All we have is the now. So yes, believe in the human good, pay something forward today, 'cause the fatalistic side in all of us will eventually trip us up.
Carpe diem!

Bouke S. Nagel2013-01-31 15:41:40
Thank you all for your comments.
- In regard to the remark about Christianity and anti-Semitism, I would like to refer the reader to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
- In regard to remark about the “Carpe Diem” outlook on life:
Our children are not able to set themselves up for the world in twenty years from now. They need our help to do that for them. The only thing we can do is make a calculated bet about our future and invest our societal resources accordingly. There are no guarantees of course but at least we can tell our children that we did our best to make to the world a better place for them.

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