Europe's Status Quo Left

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  • Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC

    Europe's Status Quo LeftLanguage, Politics, and Writing: Stolentelling in Western Europe by Patrick McCarthyReview by: Christopher HitchensForeign Policy, No. 137 (Jul. - Aug., 2003), pp. 100+102+104-106Published by: Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLCStable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 11:24

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  • [ In Other Words I

    a semireligious preamble was added to the Polish constitution, more restrictive antiabortion laws were demanded, and the Polish media faced constant scrutiny for anti- Christian ideas, or messages that were purportedly offensive to the sensibilities of the nation's "Chris- tian majority." [See "Would Jesus Join the EU?" FOREIGN POLICY, May/June 2003.]

    The church's self-directed moral supervision of Poland's democrat- ic institutions has resulted in two contradictory phenomena. On one hand, there has been a visible anti- clerical reaction, with griping about the church's political meddling, and a rapid secularization of a large part of Polish society, especially among the young. Witness the recent polls showing that 52 per- cent of Poles with college degrees

    believe the church has too much influence on Polish life. Poles may still be a religious people, but fewer of them define their religiosity according to Catholic dogma and church attendance. And the obser- vance of religious ceremonies has markedly declined.

    On the other hand, recent years have seen an unprecedented mobi- lization of a hard-core, antiliberal, increasingly frustrated Catholic fun- damentalist minority. The growth of this movement is exemplified by the success of a media empire estab- lished in the early 1990s by an obscure priest, Tadeusz Rydzyk. His flagship enterprise, Radio Maryja, is today one of the most popular broadcast operations in Poland, and his Lux Veritatis Foun- dation was licensed in February 2003 to establish a national TV net-

    work. In recent years, the Polish Catholic episcopate, aware that the church is rapidly squandering its moral authority, has tried to adopt a more moderate stance and to dis- tance itself from Rydzyk's obscu- rantist, nationalist, and antidemo- cratic message.

    The split between secularists and clericalists, however, is growing and threatens not only the position of the church but also the cohe- siveness of Poland's democratic polity. An open, vigorous debate on the church's political legacy in Poland is long overdue. Commu- nists and the Church may be a good starting point for such a debate. It remains unclear, however, if Poland's Catholic Church and lib- eral intelligentsia can muster enough objectivity to make that healthy exchange happen. I-

    Europe's Status Quo Left By Christopher Hitchens

    Language, Politics, and Writing: Stolentelling in Western Europe By Patrick McCarthy 288 pages, New York: Palgrave, 2002

    At a time when "Euro- pean" cultural opinion is so much sought after

    and discussed by Americans of lib-

    eral temper, and considered sus- pect by so many Americans of the conservative school, one might do much worse than to consult the work of a man of Irish descent, reared in South Wales, who teach- es in Bologna (at the Paul H. Nitze School of the Johns Hopkins Uni- versity campus there) and whose expertise is the modern history and politics of France. I have derived great pleasure and instruc- tion from both reading and con- versing with Patrick McCarthy in the past, and so I opened his col- lection of essays on the inter- weaving of 20th-century Europe's political and literary history with some impatience.

    This impatience, I regret to report, still persists. Elegant and allu- sive as Language, Politics, and Writ- ing: Stolentelling in Western Europe often is, it has something inescapably blase and laconic about it. Let me simply cite what McCarthy says about European culture and Islam, on an early page of his introduction:

    Culture-hopefully defined more precisely-gets a long chapter of its own because it is probably the greatest problem that young Europeans will have to face. European culture is becoming one of many and has to confront "others." In particular, it must confront

    Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Van-

    ity Fair and a visiting professor in the depart- ment of liberal studies at the New School in

    New York. He is the author of Unacknowl-

    edged Legislation: Writers in the Public

    Sphere (New York: Verso, 2000) and, most

    recently, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (New York: Plume, 2003).


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  • In Other Words

    "the other," namely, Islam. Europe's record is not encour- aging (nor is Islam's), but we have the resources in our cul- ture to create a dialogue rather than a war. Whatever Presi- dent Bush may say, September 11 was not just an act of ter- rorism; it was the fruit of a breakdown of communica- tions that has deep historical roots. Catching Osama Bin Laden may be an excellent undertaking, but the real goal is to learn to live with and talk to, not about, Islam.

    When this passage departs from cliche and tautology, it is only to fall into error. The word "hopefully" is employed in just the way one teaches students to avoid. "Nor" should be "neither." Nothing is added, in American or European campus lingo, by putting a simple

    concept such as "the other" (or "others") in pseudo-significant apos- trophes. Culture, however precisely defined it is "hopefully" going to be, either is, or probably is, the great- est "problem" that all humans will "have to face." (There doesn't seem to be, in other words, any chance of something so obvious not being the

    the many Islams as identical or as a homogenous "Islam"? Then one would hate to see, if only from the standpoint of metaphor mixture, the fruit of a breakdown. But no doubt this unlikely collision would have- as everything surely does-"deep historical roots."

    The political references are

    Patrick McCarthy allows that a hunt for al Qaeda might be all very well-as if it did not concern him all that much-while taking second place to his own reflec- tions on cultural coexistence.

    case.) By the way, when exactly was "European culture" not "one of many," including many European ones? But are we therefore to view

    sloppy in the same way. The U.S. president did not refer to the events of September 11, 2001, as "just an act of terrorism." Among other things, he defined those events as an act of war and meant what he said. Moreover, and whatever one may think of his choice of terms, the president made and continues to make a strenuous effort to enforce a distinction between dis- crepant interpretations of Islam. McCarthy's final sentence here is merely complacent: He allows that a hunt for al Qaeda might be all very well-as if it did not concern him all that much-while taking second place to his own reflections on cultural coexistence. How searching might these reflections be? Not all that profound, if they depend upon a false distinction between talking "to" someone and talking "about" something.

    I am again only taking McCarthy at his word when he makes a core announcement on the very same page:

    If I were asked to sum up the book's theme in a sentence, I

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  • In Other Words

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    would refer to Primo Levi's statement that a man who

    gives up trying to be under- stood by those around him is headed only for the gas-cham- ber. (And what of Auschwitz? Is it not good that the last half-

    century has not produced another set of death-camps in Western Europe? Yes of

    course, even if that is a low

    target to set oneself. Moreover, the ex-Yugoslavia has wit- nessed forms of cruelty almost

    equal the crimes of the Nazis.)

    This passage hovers on the verge of gibberish. In what sense did Levi say such a thing? Are we to conclude that those who despair of being understood are themselves headed for the gas chamber or instead that they are pushing oth- ers in that direction? If the first, then was Diogenes the Cynic bound for Treblinka? If the sec- ond, then are the postmodern the- orists bent on genocide? Mean- while, please bear in mind that Western Europe must have been very mutually intelligible in the last half century, since it produced no death camps. Except that there were, apparently, death camps (though they were located just across the Adriatic from Western Europe). The "stolentelling" in the subtitle of this book comes from James Joyce and implies that all language has been annexed from other languages. I knew that. I also knew that Joyce worked in Paris and Trieste as well as Dublin. But this cultural conceit is no excuse for such obfuscation.

    McCarthy announces the limi- tations of his own concept of "Europe." He means it to com- prise the British Isles and the main- land, excluding Spain and Eastern Europe and (he might have added) Scandinavia. That's good, because

    many people have come to employ the terms "Europe" and "the Euro- peans" in a manner that is either too embracing or too finite. With- in this severely circumscribed com- pass (I should have thought that Milan Kundera was a "Western" force by now), McCarthy's main unintended limitation is his ten- dency to swing between very learned and expert micro-observa- tions and much more questionable macro ones. Sometimes, the micro- learning has to be elucidated by the reader, which is no bad thing. McCarthy makes enough glancing references to Celtic and Gaelic nationalism, whether Welsh, Irish, or Breton, to allow the inference that there was a consistent overlap between this form of Romanticism and modern forms of fascism.

    The bulk of the collection con- sists of exegeses, either of other books or other authors. In dis- cussing authorship, McCarthy rather tentatively proposes Roland Barthes's distinction-which he at first terms a sharp one-between ecrivain and ecrivant. The first prac- titioner, we are informed, considers language an end in itself: a process of musing upon how rather than why. The second confronts the why or the whys. This distinction is only introduced to be dropped, since the only times McCarthy employs it are to say that two great authors- Antonio Gramsci and George Orwell-decisively combined both roles in one. (Toward the end of the book, McCarthy also says in passing that Margaret Drabble's novels show her sometimes as dcrivain and at other times as

    icrivant, but since he doesn't stip- ulate which works are which we are no further enlightened.)

    Let me give another example of the lazy transition between a specific and a general reference. McCarthy doesn't venture far from


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  • conventional wisdom when he nominates the Dreyfus case as a defining moment in the evolution of modern France: pitting cos- mopolitanism against anti-Semi- tism, civil society against the army, "intellectuals" against the Roman Catholic Church, and objective standards of justice against mysti- cal ones. Later, while discussing the divorce scandal that ruined the career of Charles Stuart Parnell, so stirred James Joyce, and so greatly retarded the cause of Irish nation- alism, he calls it "arguably Ireland's Dreyfus case." This assertion is plainly ridiculous, as well as anachronistic. Parnell was dead before the Dreyfus case occurred and was never tried for anything himself. The only possible analogy is the lamentable fact that in both "cases...