Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Strandkorb

It could have been Heiligendamm right after the sandglass of summer has turned cold. One of those imaginary extended moments which has both time and presence. When everything is at once simple and concrete, the coldness in the air, the grey skies across the Baltic and the self-enclosed bubble that does not gravitate in any one direction. Thinking about it now, concentration can easily slip, it can be rainy morning drives through Baltimore or Arabian deserts at night, but in this fictional moment there is just the right amount of extension in space and time.

I guess we all feel uneasy about ourselves sometimes. We wonder what others think, if we are too extrovert or introvert, if what we say is really funny or if we should better be quiet. How do we know? We are after all in a “non-neutral evaluative setting”, we ask other people to take on the task of fundamental ontological mediation, and as much as eternity can be in their eyes, they are not God and should never be asked to pretend being either.

But in silence we have a window towards the transcendental, a glimpse inside ourselves, and a space that we need to fill with presence. It takes courage to do that, to not escape.

Yet, night will fall also over Germany and aesthetics can at best soothe but not heal. We are an irreversible product of what has been; the actuality of our actions as much as we want to be defined by our potentiality (at least while we are young but hopefully until the very end). God alone can redeem.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thinking about war

In one of the very first posts here on Rawls & Me I remarked that the world would probably have been somewhat more forgiving towards Bill Clinton for his saxophone adventures with Miss Lewinsky, had it only known what would follow (i.e. the trauma of the Bush years). The same can probably be said about the remaining US hegemony. As much as all my friends on the Left in Europe take any opportunity they can to criticize the United States, I am not sure if they would be particularly happy in a world without it.

Such thoughts come very natural here. As I noted in my last post, I am less than a hundred kilometres from the North Korean border. In one understanding, all this is just a collective psychosis, any sane person would immediately wake up and stop it. But sixty years of Stalinism do not make sane people.

In a perverse Herman Kahnish-way of thinking, I must admit that I am sometimes thankful that the United States poses a credible existential threat to North Korea, that its leaders know that any attempt to attack the South, in particular with nuclear weapons, would turn the North into gravel and ashes within hours. But as a Christian I cannot accept that kind of logic and, more importantly, what it does to me. I am pacifist because I believe that killing, even under the cloak of war, is murder. Also as a Christian I firmly believe that sacrifice is sometimes required, that we must be bold when confronted with evil. That if we resort to arms, we will lose ourselves.

I often like to think that war is a dying business. That as the world comes together through globalization, we will abolish war and make good on the cosmopolitan promise of one moral and political community of humanity. But if anything the last decade has been a reminder of how far we actually are from reaching that insight. The countless lives that have been sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan where the absence of military force would probably have been far more effective in toppling authoritarian regimes (as witnessed during the Arabic spring). I do not know how often I have asked myself why the United States does not believe in its own values, why it chooses to torture people rather than putting them to justice, why it does not open its borders for the world rather than locking them down? But as Europeans we tend to ask more from the United States than we are capable of ourselves. All the possibilities are on our own doorstep as well: why do we not bring Turkey into the union? Why did we let the fear of “social tourism” obscure the common possibilities for growth when Poland and the other central European countries joined in 2004? And why do we keep building new prisons rather than schools at home?

When thinking of the century ahead, all this cannot be separated from the ecological challenge we are facing. And looking back at the monumental changes of the 20th century, it is at least to me self-evident that we must project a positive future, one of universal affluence rather than scarcity, one that can inspire people without requiring them to submit to one single epistemology (such as the belief in the reality of climate change). Many green theorists seem willing to accept the death of billions of people in order to carry out their great project of homogenization. In their world, there are no BMW owners, no people who like flying overseas, no dreams of one day moving to the stars. For them it is all a moral quest to show their own ideological purity. But we cannot have that world. We need a world of compromises, of dialogues and debates, and most of all, we need slow and pragmatic change so that we can learn from what goes wrong. And if that is so, when we need a vision, one that can talk to the highest in us, that can show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities. A vision that can inspire also those people far away in America who are right now making up yet another war plan for the Korean peninsula and who, I promise, do not lose much sleep over global warming.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

37°33' North 126°59' East

After two weeks of idyllic silence in Sweden and Norway, I have now returned to East Asia. Yesterday evening I moved into the faculty dormitory that will be my home for the coming year in Seoul. Eleventh floor with a mountain view, a cross-training machine parked outside in the hallway and a foreign professors-only elevator...

The afternoon sun leaves no doubt that Seoul is on the same latitude as Seville. Luckily I brought along some sunscreen. Otherwise, it is difficult not to get reminded by the proximity to another circle of latitude, namely the 38th parallel North which has served as the demarcation line between South and North Korea for more than half a century, running just a few dozen kilometres to the North of my new apartment.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

High-speed through China

At 307 km/h, train G14 makes its way North on an elevated track high above rice paddies and endless suburbs as we finally take the train from Shanghai Hongqiao to Beijing South. Even if seat 61 was taken, this is undoubtedly a classic train journey, the kind that one would sit at home with a large map and plan on long November nights. At the same time, the journey brings a very concrete human scale experiential dimension to distances that previously were just abstract air miles.

Seeing China this way leaves no reason for doubt: we are truly living through the end of nature. Everywhere, human intrusion into what was once dense forests, silent lakes and majestic mountains. I cannot help feeling sad about this tremendous loss, about what we have done to the planet and its natural habitats. It may be that I believe that humanity, in the future, could reverse much of this environmental destruction and decouple itself from the natural world. But doing so will require the emergence of a global subject, an understanding that we, as a conscious species, have a unique responsibility for the future of all life on this planet and that we cannot continue along the current trajectory.

Witnessing the last weeks of political mayhem, not least the debate over the debt ceiling in the US, has been a powerful reminder of how far we actually are from the kind of enlightened cosmopolitan politics that will be needed to safely take humanity through the mid-century canyon of environmental stress. And browsing all those weblogs teeming with racism, hate and narrowly defined conceptions of "national interests", it is difficult to maintain the Habermasian hope of a new shining Republic of Letters emerging online. But let's not forget that it has always been like this, that it always has been more difficult to formulate good ideas than bad ones, and that history will always be a "race between education and catastrophe" (to quote H.G. Wells).

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