Archive for November, 2011

When I struck out in my own music language, I took a step out of the world of serious music, according to most of my teachers. But I didn’t care. I could row the boat by myself, you know? I didn’t need to be on the big liner with everybody else.
— Philip Glass


Portrait of Philip Glass
(Chuck Close, 1977)

Who’s there?

Who’s there?

Who’s there?

Who’s there?

Who’s there?

Philip Glass


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None of you actually have any democratic legitimacy for the roles that you currently hold within this crises.

Direct election by the populace is not the only legitimate means of coming to office. The presidents of the European Council and European Commission are not in office by divine right. Herman van Rompuy was elected by the heads of government. Being given responsibility by those who were elected is a common feature in representative governance around the world and wholly in keeping with the EU’s hybrid intergovernmental-supranational character. The President of the European Commission must be approved by the European Parliament, again a fairly run of the mill system for coming to office in parliamentary democracies, just one step removed from direct election by the people. Nigel Farage’s claim is akin to saying all Congressional action is insufficiently democratic, the people having not directly voted in plebiscites for the laws. As when operating under a constitution, the delegation of responsibilities and mechanism for officeholder selection have been agreed by treaty (most recently Lisbon). The underpinning treaties have been approved by successive national governments. Europe has received decades worth of approval by many parties, many heads of government, and many parliamentarians. This can hardly be termed the assassination of nation-state democracy. (Also, given the breadth and depth of the acquis communautaire no state can quietly join the EU.)

Farage’s selective account of recent European history is utterly misleading. Take Silvio Berlusconi’s exit, Farage says, “And not satisfied with that you decided that Berlusconi had to go. So he was removed and replaced with Mr. Monti.” Berlusconi had been embroiled in scandals for months, the allegations of directly intervening to get an underage prostitute released is just one example (Guardian). In recent months Berlusconi had survived confidence votes with a slim margin and was finally demonstrated to have less than the required support to continue as head of government. Berlusconi lost office at the direction of the Italian parliament, not the leading figures in the EU.

We are now living in a German dominated Europe.

From here Farage goes on to an elision of monstrous proportions. Paying “a heavy price in blood” to stop Nazi Germany in the past is quite distinct from the (allegedly) Federal Republic of Germany dominated Europe of today. The distinctions between the two are so obvious I won’t linger on the point. Germany has both the largest population and economy of the EU. And yet Germany has agreed to pool sovereignty with neighbors who have long been vocal participants on the international scene like France and the United Kingdom. What’s more, Germany agrees to be the largest net contributor to the EU budget. If the EU represents German domination, then it is a very strange form of domination. Why for instance agree to qualified majority voting in any circumstances instead of preserving the national veto in all circumstances? The fact of qualified majority voting is that any single nation can be outvoted in certain predefined circumstances.

No pushover

A final point on the supposed German domination of Europe, the Franco-German engine at the heart of driving the European project forward includes France. No French president has been a slouch when it comes to Europe. Europe is always a key part of French foreign policy, a defining feature of France’s place in the world. The United Kingdom has been a more reluctant partner in the European project. The UK were not engaged in the European project from the outset but once in Europe the UK has been an assertive member.

Farage has made spectacularly unconstructive contributions to parliamentary debates in the past (Youtube), given this misleading speech one can only imagine he plans to continue in that vein.

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Berlaymont, headquarters of the European Commission

The UN Charter’s preamble opens with this determination, further remarking, “war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”. While the United Nations has not been successful in reaching this ambitious goal just yet, the European project has met more success in bringing peace to a fractious continent. Like the UN, the European project began in response to the horrors of wars that killed millions and immiserated millions more. The foremost idea in the European imagination in establishing this European project: The engineering of permanent peace. Stability on a continent whose instabilities (twice!) shook the world.

All that background to the European project came to mind when reading David Brooks’ column today, The Technocratic Nightmare. Brooks warns of an elitist, technocratic mind-set in the European project, writing,

The mess threatens to bring down the European project and European economies. It threatens to send the world into another global recession. […] On a superficial level, the fault lies with the current European leadership, their addiction to inadequate patches and fudges. But the real problems emerge from the technocratic mind-set, from the arrogant gray men who believe they can engineer society, oblivious to history, language, culture, values and place. […] In the short term, the European Central Bank, the stable European nations and even the U.S. will have to take extremely big and painful action to stabilize the situation. But, after that, it’ll be a time for chastening. It’ll be time to discard the technocratic mind-set that created this inherently flawed architecture and build a Europe that reflects the organic realities of those diverse societies.

While Brooks is correct in noting that urgent international cooperation is necessary to counteract a sovereign debt crisis threatening multiple European countries (and the global economic recovery), he fails to notice that rescue process too will be imagined, negotiated, and executed by elites and technocrats. It could not be otherwise. Political elites (politicians and the chattering classes) and technocrats (economists, macroeconomic experts, etc.) are by definition deeply involved in the process. The politicians possess the legitimacy to negotiate on behalf of the 10 million people of Greece, 65 million people of France, 80 million people of Germany and so on. The experts possess the intellectual know-how to formulate options in the face of a financial crises of this nature. There is no avoiding being governed by elites and technocrats.

The fact that a high percentage of the general public is not well versed in macroeconomics and international political economy does not lead inexorably to the perspective that it is for the elites to command and the public to obey. The fact that the general public doesn’t have the facility with the knowledge required to craft a comprehensive response to the crisis does not mean a condescending tone is warranted. Brooks quotes a European bureaucrat who expresses skepticism at the wisdom of the general European public; the bureaucrat’s point: “History had taught them that Europe’s peoples were not to be trusted and government should be run from the top by people like themselves.”

No actor in the euro-crisis has perfect information. It is disrespectful to fellow members of a community to behave in a condescending manner, especially since the best informed face uncertainties in addressing a crisis. An under-informed public must be educated to understand the options available. Deliberation and negotiation will be required, as will the hard work of convincing the public to assent to a course of action and face the resulting consequences of a chosen policy (likely bailouts for unsympathetic financial institutions and austerity measures). After all, the legitimacy officeholders possess is on loan from the general public. Given all the countries involved are representative democracies, the public will have the final say. Thus elites must work in partnership with the public in an interactive process. A process of crafting, guiding, and engineering – little of which involves being chastened by “organic realities” as Brooks claims. (The story of the nation as a somehow “organic” or “natural” entity is itself a highly questionable proposition.)

Arrogance resulting in condescension certainly goes too far. But it takes a certain amount of confidence in one’s skills as a politician or technocrat to pursue a project of European proportions, a project of international integration as yet unseen. A project to bring durable peace and prosperity to nearly half a billion people. A community of states continuously cooperating with one another, trading with one another, committing to resolving disputes with one another through negotiation, upholding human rights, and permitting the free movement of people, that vision should be celebrated in Europe and beyond. The European Union is one of the most important political innovations of the 20th century. Would that other regions of the world had leaders as farsighted as Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, and Jacques Delors.

That said, the public’s role should not be ignored or dismissed with condescension. Neither should the political elites-technocrats role be dismissed as ignorant overreaching, in an attempt to “engineer society, oblivious to history, language, culture, values and place.” Indeed history was in the forefront of European elites minds throughout the constructing of the European Union, a history of armed conflict animated by those all too mindful of national “language, culture, values and place.” The public is not a useless mass incapable of comprehending and the technocrats are not deracinated cosmopolitans, incapable of leadership.

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Le Corbu's Plan Voisin

How CNN Newsroom anchor Kyra Phillips described Zuccotti Park in a setup to a discussion with CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.* Phillips and Cohen went on to discuss the public health risks presented by having so many people live in such a confined space, with Cohen pointing out the health dangers were primarily to occupiers, not the general public. That description, “mountains of trash and filth” caught my attention because I visitied Zuccotti Park on Friday with two friends for a few hours, my first visit and not theirs.

We walked around. We discussed the merits of the protest and the direction of the movement. Then we tried to visit the 9/11 Memorial but didn’t have the requisite reservation, so we returned to Zuccotti Park. So we sat on the steps and discussed the merits of Occupy some more. We watched part of a general meeting and then went to dinner. Now during the few hours that I spent there, I think I would have noticed these mountains of trash and filth. Yes it was cramped. The layout of the park wouldn’t have fit Le Corbusier’s visions of orderliness. But I detected no mountains of trash and filth. Cohen goes on to remark on the “not great sanitation, garbage, feces”.**

Now, I haven’t been to the other Occupy protests, I can only speak to firsthand experience with Occupy Wall Street from visiting Zuccotti Park Friday evening. But from what I witnessed Friday, they were pretty orderly with regard to waste disposal. I wasn’t looking out for it, or thinking about potential Occupy Wall Street public health dangers but I saw specific bins marked off for composting, with a sign above in one half red one half green. The red half identified the things that were not ok to put with compost and the green half of the sign identified things that were ok. Run of the mill left-ish conservation-y concerns that didn’t stand out in my mind at the time. There was a kitchen. There was a library. Hardly Victorian cholera afflicted London. Someone had put some thought into this occupation, given Occupy’s direct democratic governance mechanisms, quite a few people had given the occupation thought.

So from what I saw for myself, the compost sign for instance, from what I smelled – I would have noticed trash and feces strewn about – and from what I can infer from OWS having a library and working kitchen I have to call this CNN report out. Execrable reporting CNN, I hope they will try to do better in the future.

About 10:03am on CNN today

* – Kyra Phillips: You know, one of the many reasons for clearing the park is health concerns, not just for those who lived among these mountains of trash and filth, but also the people who live nearby.

** Elizabeth Cohen: Serious health risks for the people who are in these Occupy movements. We’ve been speaking with these infectious disease experts and they say with winter coming, it’s a perfect storm because with winter comes flu and other viral illnesses and you have that many people packed together in a small area. And that is just a recipe for illness. And in addition you have not great sanitation, garbage, feces, it is just not a great situation. So the experts we talked to were concerned that if something wasn’t done you definitely could have people getting sick.

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I have found new joy in Beethoven, and the Great Fugue now seems to me … a perfect miracle … an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever … hardly birthmarked by its age, the Great Fugue is, as rhythm alone, more subtle than any music composed in my own century … it is pure interval music, this fugue, and I love it beyond any other. – Igor Stravinsky

I would go so far as to say, not only that we do not know Beethoven, or even music, until we know this work, but that we do not understand life and humanity. If this seems an extravagant statement, for me to make, I will ask the reader to bear in mind that the fugue has, for myself, illuminated everthing I have ever known or thought of things of beauty, character, and significance in any art or in any department of existence.

To end, hoever, and on a lighter note, In Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles hears the angels chanting “Pardon to sinners and life to the dust.” Their song is contrary to his nature, and he expresses himself on it accordingly: “Mis-töne höre ich; garstiges Geklimper” (“Discord I hear, and filthy jingling.”) The nineteenth century heard in the Grosse Fuge discord and filthy jingling. It said so. And it said it with amazement that the beloved Beethoven could have perpetrated such a “monster” (one of the pet terms of condemnation). The century should have been more modest; it should have stood before the fugue as Blake stood before creation and its mysteries, and have done no more than question:

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Sydney Grew writing in the Musical Quarterly, 1931

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