Europe's Fear of the UnKnown

As paralysis continues to grip the corridors of power in Brussels and Berlin, even the dark humour for which central Europeans are noted is in short supply. But at least, so the line goes, the Greeks managed "to get it right" at the ballot box on Sunday and won't be forced to vote in another election until they do manage to get it right. That, after all, had been the fate of other European Union member states such as Ireland when constitutional referendums didn't delivered the results that Brussels bureaucrats wanted. In the case of Italy, impending economic crisis saw technocrats assume power without even the fig leaf of an election. For now, it seems, and across the euro zone, so deep is the fear of life outside of the tottering single currency that voters will opt to continue to take the austerity medicine.

In Greece, victory for Antonis Samaras's conservative New Democracy Party came at a time when many Greeks know that the choice lies between a rock and a hard place: permanent economic stagnation and austerity, courtesy of the euro zone, or massive capital flight and sudden devaluation should Greece revert to the drachma.

No one should underestimate the real fear that stalks southern Europe, as the contagion risks spreading to Spain and to Italy. This is the fear of the unknown. Once upon a time, EU membership, and the badge of recognition conferred by joining the single currency, meant that countries had somehow "arrived". To bite the bullet and opt out of the single currency is something fearful southern Europeans are still not quite prepared to risk.

After all, it wasn't all that long ago that Greece and Spain were dictatorships, and in truth democracy is a relatively new concept to many countries in Europe. That is why the sight of strutting, leather-clad neo-fascists on the streets of Greek cities strikes fear in the hearts of many.

As world leaders gathered in Mexico for the G20 Summit over the past two days, one senior official was quoted as saying that the crisis in the euro zone "is the biggest threat to the global economy". For his part, the president of the European Commission, Manuel Barrosso, attempted to spread the gloom - or perhaps the blame. "The challenges are not only European, they are global," Mr Barrosso said.

Such utterances offer precious little hope to the Greeks. They have seen their economy contract by a nearly unbelievable 30 per cent and with little or no hope of economic recovery (as long as Germany continues to resist the almost-universal demand for massive, state-engendered, demand-led economic growth).

Yet for the austere German bankers, "process" is key, and massive national debt unsustainable. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there are domestic considerations: why should German workers, who have struggled through a prolonged wage freeze, be forced to risk all in bailing out much of southern Europe?

Ms Merkel's party has seen poor election results in North Rhine Westphalia; she knows most Germans do not want to try to repeat what took almost two decades for them to achieve in the former East Germany. Given that Europe's leaders have still not managed to sort out the banks - which tipped the euro zone, with all of its contradictions, into crisis in the first place - it is hard not to have some sympathy with the Germans who are now expected to bail out a euro zone that, in truth, probably cannot be bailed out.

In debt-laden Britain, now in a second period of recession, Prime Minister David Cameron has urged companies to look to emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil for the opportunities that are fast disappearing from the euro zone. Britain narrowly avoided joining the single currency, yet the crisis will not leave Britain untouched. Already, as The Guardian reported this week, about 2.2 million British children are living in poverty and millions of working families are one push from penury. Heavy cuts in welfare budgets have yet to kick in, with all the fears of suffering that follow from a disappearing social welfare net.

If the single currency can be blamed for making Europe's recession much worse, then it was Anglo-American deregulation of the financial sector that allowed the euro zone to be undone so spectacularly from within. But five years into a global recession, a recession that has lasted for almost as long as the Second World War, Europe's leaders have simply failed to come up with a solution.What a stark contrast to the period 25 years ago when the communist bloc unravelled across central and eastern Europe. Back then, there were US and western European "five-point plans" designed to develop fledgling democracies and nascent market economies. Fears of economic collapse and mass migration were never realised and, in the short period since, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states have all emerged as strong, growing economies.

Their relative economic confidence may, of course, be related to the fact that most of them have not yet joined the euro zone - something the leaders of all these countries were once very keen on doing. 


This article first appearred in The National newspaper. 

Mark Seddon is a former UN correspondent for Al Jazeera English and a UK political commentator.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.