Monday, June 05, 2006

Open Society and Its “Housewitzes” – in Defense of Democratic Realism

“Housewitz” case can be seen as a symptom of ever recurring enemies of open society. Leaving free speech issues aside, central question remains how rigorously should state comply with the principle of neutrality between the different conceptions of the good and whether it may use its legal system to propagate certain values while hindering others. In aftermath of “Housewitz” I’m discussing here only a particular exemption of due neutrality principle, namely that of fostering patriotism, which includes promotion of civic-humanist values and national culture with language.

In response to my post, Avbelj takes a principled position: “Let the public discourse, free speech fully value laden and pursued by autonomous individuals striving for their conceptions of the good decide the course, the direction of our societies.” Noble goal, no doubt, but with a minor flaw: “Housewitz” is not merely a production of a student with too much time and bad taste respectively – it’s the repetition of a bad dream from deep beneath European subconsciousness. Repetition of a nightmare that is one of central experiences of today’s Europe, to quote Jürgen Habermas and Jaques Derrida in a rare joint public intervention, and an experience that at the same time binds us to reflect on moral basis of politics:

"Das heutige Europa ist durch die Erfahrungen der totalitären Regime des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts und durch den Holocaust - die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der europäischen Juden, in die das NS-Regime auch die Gesellschaften der eroberten Länder verstrickt hat - gezeichnet. Die selbstkritischen Auseinandersetzungen über diese Vergangenheit haben die moralischen Grundlagen der Politik in Erinnerung gerufen."

Having this in mind, it is even more disturbing to see a recent increase in racial violence in many parts of Europe. One would like to think that Jörg Haider’s tremendous election success few years ago was more or less anecdotal and isolated event, but we have seen most recently huge problems and even violence linked to unsuccessful integration of large immigrant communities in France and Germany and other parts of Europe. This indicates fragility of European democracies, perhaps not yet an extreme fragility but certainly more serious as we liked to believe. Even European Constitution referendum campaigns that took place last year turned in many EU member states into platforms for far right and far left demagogies to which not insignificant parts of population are becoming increasingly vulnerable. It’s a European weakness on at least two levels: on one level we have seen difficulties of social cohesion while on the other chauvinist forces of both left and right persuasions are sporadically gaining momentum using economic uncertainty as a launching pad.

The ontological argument, regarding the factors that account for social life shows that, at least in contemporary European democracies, patriotism must be an exception to due neutrality of the state. European states are not only entitled to, but simply must propagate democratic values as well as historical set of institutions, national culture and language. A principle, even a neutrality principle is not an idée fixe, to quote from Philip Selznick. It is not an instrument of ideological thinking; not a prejudice; not a rule to be applied mechanically. It belongs to a larger whole, which includes textured meanings and concrete understandings as well as abstract ideas. Only if that whole is implicated there can be genuinely principled judgment.

Learning from the Weimar experience, postwar European policy makers understood this very well. They knew that rhapsodizing about neutrality and moral autonomy is not enough. Not just by reading Machiavelli, they also learned from experience that in democratic politea patriotism provides for the necessary strong allegiance from its citizens while in tyranny a raw force is sufficient. In free society something more than Habeas Corpus or Bill of Rights is needed. Since such a society relies on this allegiance there must be identification around the sense of common good - or around democratic values vested in the Constitution if you will. After the war, it was natural for democracies to give incentives to newly found democratic cultures. At the same time it was self-evident that it is not always necessary to tolerate intolerance. Typical examples of such sound democratic realism are two landmark cases by German Bundesverfassungsgericht, namely SRP-Verbot (BVerfGE 2, 1) and KPD-Verbot (BVerfGE 5, 85) in which postwar(!) German communist party and nazi party were banned due to their authoritarian agendas. No particular violent actions were required to justify the ban - an abstract “fundamental and longstanding tendency to fight free democratic order” was sufficient for the Court.

As regards to necessary civic allegiance to free society, strict neutrality may be applicable in USA where there has always been enviable, almost exact fusion between nation's democratic values and free institutions. In such a stable environment there is much smaller threat to civic values even if society has moved more towards procedural form of liberalism. But in Europe, with its dark past and in many respects troubled present, this is not the case. Sometimes lawmaker or courts must intervene in order to secure democracy. There is nothing paradoxical in this - if we only understand a simple truth pointed out by Richard Rorty, saying that due »respect for difference« does not require you to »respect every human being, and every human culture - no matter how vicious or stupid«.


At 1:15 PM, Blogger Jernej Letnar said...

Thanks Miha for this post. I would more or less agree with basic premise of your post, however I ll reply you more in-depth in a new post coming in next days.


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