The closing of the Western mind

By Eugène E.

I found myself lamenting the passing of two literary institutions during the same week in late May. The first was Philip Roth, arguably the last representative of that great cohort of American writers steeped in the European literary tradition and untainted by the culture of political correctness, a man whose literary accomplishments made him an institution all unto himself. The writer was eighty-five.

The other was the closure of Eliot’s Bookshop, one of Toronto’s most iconic and old-fashioned bookstores, complete with dusty shelves, creaking floors, and a smorgasbord of books you would have been hard-pressed to find anywhere else. The bookstore was twenty-two, and its owner had been in business for some forty years. The store had actually closed in December of 2017 but, having been a rather sporadic visitor to that particular bookshop, I did not find that out until a few days after Roth’s passing, when I happened to be in the area and decided to drop by to stock up, only to be greeted by the view in the photo used for this article.

For me, then, the disappearance of Eliot’s Bookshop is closely bound up with the death of Philip Roth. Though these are disparate events, there’s some symbolism here. There’s no doubt that the literary world is in crisis, and that people read a lot less of the kinds of things they ought to be reading in order to be able to ask the right questions and in order to question those opinions that are being imposed on them right, left, and centre.

A few months ago, I had an enriching conversation with an East European writer concerning the general drop in academic standards and the loss of interest in reading as juxtaposed against the rise of ultraliberalism and its incessant propaganda. There was some disagreement about whether this dumbing down is a sinister project carried out by a cabal, or whether, as Tolstoy thought, there are overriding laws at work that govern history and human affairs, and that have remained beyond the realm of human discovery. The question was not settled, but we were at one with each other on the main conclusion: enlightenment is in retreat, and we’re witnessing the closing of the Western mind.

It has always been trendy in some circles to glorify the past at the expense of the present. Did our conclusion amount to much the same thing? Were we two revenants stumbling about the shores of modernity, bemoaning a lost paradise that has probably never even existed? Perhaps. But there’s no question that the leitmotif of our times – whether in the domain of politics, culture, fashion, and even our daily habits – is that of vulgar oversimplification. We use language that is crudely simple; we dress according to the mantra “less is more”; we use the latest technology to cater to our most primitive desires. We expect our leaders to be our spitting images; and increasingly, looking at the present crop of those in power, it appears that the stewards of statehood are more than happy to oblige.

How is this happening? And why?

Let’s start with the “how”. Conscious of the risk of engaging in oversimplification in an article that criticizes oversimplification, I’ll say it anyway: technology is the great enabler. It’s amusing to hear otherwise intelligent people contemplate the possible risk of the domination of artificial intelligence, as if prospects of such a domination were just that – prospects. To an extent, it is already happening. As a tool to help us maximize our potential, technology is supposed to work for humanity; instead, humanity appears to be working for technology. Get together with a group of friends for lunch, and it won’t be long before someone, with a well-rehearsed motion, whips out his smartphone to settle a debate, check his e-mail, or text a girlfriend about a get-together later on that night. In fact, one often gets the feeling that modern existence is not so much about experiencing things as it is about anticipating or reporting experiences. The immediacy of life – that cogent sense of the present that gives our existence its texture – is attenuated in favour of its virtuality. We’d rather text back and forth to let others know what a great time we’re having than put the iPhone down and actually enjoy the moment. It is saying something when companies such as Apple roll out tools to help users limit the amount of time they spend with their gadgets in a quest to fight phone addiction – the drug cartels promoting moderate use of narcotics. Good luck with that.

Our lives are being shunted from reality to virtuality, from real life to the virtual one. Twitter epitomizes this shift. In the past, journalists would typically interview eyewitnesses or “people familiar with the matter” when reporting on events. For some time now, they’ve been relying on tweets. The media canvass the Twittersphere in order to echo the vox populi. We’ll have to set aside the question of possible manipulation – suffice it to say, the question is legitimate, given that this sort of tweet harvesting can be quite arbitrary (i.e., how do the people posting news articles choose which tweets they want to cull?). More to the point, an observation can be made that life is now viewed, channeled, and beamed through a place like Twitter. What ought to have been a great platform for updates and announcements has become a measure of our existence, a watermark of modern life.

Following the death of Anthony Bourdain earlier this month, the BBC inserted a number of eulogistic tweets into the article that reported his passing. Among them were deeply lachrymose tweets from, to mention but two, Nigella Lawson and Rose McGowan. Now far be it from me to cast aspersions on anyone’s grief: there’s no darker experience than mourning the loss of a loved one, and this is not something to be trifled with. Mourning, however, is also an intensely personal experience, which makes it less than ideal for social media. When you grieve for someone, you typically don’t talk about it, much less exhibit it for the benefit of the entire planet; the depth of your personal experience is inversely correlated to the effort you make to project it externally.

The doyennes of Twitter have other ideas. Rose McGowan, for instance, sobbed directly into the camera, imploring those who want to commit suicide to seek help. Let’s think this through. She had to turn her camera on, make sure she had everything right, and then upload the recording – all of it through a vale of tears. Was there no more dignified way to send her message across? Did the whole world need to see Rose McGowan’s crocodile tears? Apparently, it did: if the world doesn’t know that you’re grieving, then you’re not really grieving. That is to say, if it’s not virtual, it’s not real. Reality is now contingent on being virtual.

Nigella Lawson’s tweet was less emotionally charged, but she too had a bombastic statement to make: noting that she was heartbroken, Lawson told her followers she was “going off twitter for a while”. Now there is something sensational! In case you’re wondering, “a while” translated into two days. Three days later, Lawson was already posting photos of a culinary delight. Perhaps one ought not to be to harsh. In Twitter terms, three days is an eternity. On social media, the deepest feelings are but fleeting, like the fading contrails left behind by an airplane. That might appeal to some people, and that’s fine. Just don’t expect much in the way of profundity or sincerity; shallowness and inauthenticity are what you get when you choose not life, but only its simulacrum.

Social media is the new battleground – with Twitter as the site of its Austerlitzes and Solferinos, it seems, only on a rather pathetic level. A university in a Canadian province congratulates a centre-right party on winning a provincial election (on Twitter), and there is an uproar (also on Twitter) by dyspeptic ultraliberal militants allergic to anyone or anything an inch to the right of Justin Trudeau. A US television personality engages in “ambien tweeting” (obviously on Twitter), and the pharmaceutical company behind the drug posts a witty riposte (on Twitter as well). The CEO of Twitter itself – the irony of all ironies – has a meal at a fast food chain that has been blacklisted by ultralibs, and there is a backlash – on Twitter, naturally. The modern man takes to Twitter to fight his wars and mete out justice. Social media platforms are becoming the global equivalent of a town square where crowds gather to pillory those who have offended the town folk. While everyone across the political spectrum is making good use of the opportunities provided by online prosecution and shaming, the ultraliberal movement has proved to be especially adept at setting up its inquisition to try those who have run afoul of the ultraliberal dogma.

To be fair, this is certainly an improvement on hurtling grenades at your opponents. But there’s a very real risk that this is leading to gross infantilism and the trivialization of debate. At a time when the world is getting ever more complex, trivialization may not be what’s needed. Trivialization promotes the unimportant and scales down the important. Nothing sticks, nothing holds, nothing lingers. A “tweetnado” rips through and does some virtual damage; then the world swiftly moves on to be awed by the next tweetnado. The landscape of today: tweetsters and tweetnadoes.

Naturally, in this kind of environment, it’s all too easy to obfuscate truth and manipulate facts. In the days leading up to the provincial election in the Canadian province of Ontario on June 7th, an article in The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s nationwide newspapers, suggested that Doug Ford, leader of Ontario’s Conservatives and one of the contenders, had vowed to make Ontario great again. Now, in the ultraliberal Canada of today – and given the current temperature – there’s no better way to undercut a politician than to make him look like a budding Donald Trump, so overlaying the image of a Canadian politician with that of Trump is effective character assassination (although, in the event, it did nothing to stymie the landslide victory of Doug Ford). Subsequent fact-checking performed by me, however, failed to reveal any statements made by Ford to that effect. I did find out that some of Ford’s followers had reportedly urged him to adopt the “great again” as a slogan and that a Ford supporter had shown up somewhere wearing a hat something or other with these words; but let’s admit that this still doesn’t come near the allegation that Ford himself had promised to make Ontario great again. Fake news? I wouldn’t want to further undermine the already beleaguered fourth estate, but a journalist writing for The Globe and Mail truly should have known better.

The most disturbing aspect of the proliferation of social media is the impoverishment of language. The use of text messages forces the user to submit to a mode of communication that, by definition, depends on packing as much information as possible into a very small space. It might make communication more efficient, but it also restricts language. Using text messages does not encourage eloquence or loquaciousness. The user is confined to the dictates of his gadget – the tyranny of the screen. For ease of use, the auto editor also suggests words as the user composes a message; the gadget tells the user what it thinks the user’s thinking. The use of language is driven by the gadget and not by the user. The tool dominates the user, and not vice versa.

In the appendix at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes how Big Brother obliterates language in order to maintain its oppression of society. The atrophy of language makes society more pliable: if the word “freedom” does not exist in your vocabulary, you won’t be able to conceive of such a term and, therefore, demand it. We’re going through an impoverishment of language of our own, rendering our communication primitive and subjecting many words to linguistic deflation (repeat the term “democracy” or “fascism” enough times, and they will lose their original meaning so as to eventually become meaningless); and while it may be far from the extremes of Orwell’s Newspeak, the sinister thing is that, as it turns out, we don’t need Big Brother to coerce us into destroying language; we’re more than happy to do the job ourselves by choosing to use technology in a way that dumbs us down, stifles all thought, and, in the case of the West, contributes to what can be called – to steal a good title from the philosopher Allan Bloom and expand on it – the closing of the Western mind.

The big question is whether this dumbing down of society is a function of natural (i.e., non-manmade) evolution, or whether there are puppeteers pulling the strings in the background. I am no enthusiast of conspiracy theories and am chary of looking for éminences grises operating in the shadows. Yet the process of the closing of the Western mind is clearly benefiting someone. Who? The gnomes of Davos, naturally – the people who get together for the annual winter confab in Davos (with the understanding that not everyone who goes to Davos is a gnome of Davos and that many a gnome of Davos need not go to Davos at all – this is more of a symbol than anything else). The gnomes of Davos – those who preach diversity, but in fact aim at uniformity; those who profess to celebrate humanity, but reduce the human being to a mindless consumer; those who promise lifestyle enrichment, but in fact deliver a destructive hedonism. The gnomes of Davos want us to believe that the apogee of the Enlightenment is a group of freaks eager to dangle their private parts in front of spectators and brandish their pathology in full view of the world – that for them is the crowning achievement of freedom and liberty. They might well believe that this really is freedom, or perhaps they know that we’re being conned – it doesn’t really matter. As long as the subjects spend money, nothing else matters. That is the new hegemony – the hegemony of the ultraliberal, the hegemony of the mediocre, the hegemony of the average. The hegemony of the gnomes of Davos.

We’ve now come to the why of it: why is the closing of the Western mind happening? By now the answer should be clear. The latter-day hegemons are not particularly interested in promoting reading as an activity – certainly not reading books. Reading books helps escape all the noise. Reading books insulates us against crowd thinking and propaganda. Reading books encourages us to think. Reading books is conducive to reflection. Reading books hones our ability to ask questions. Reading books is a private activity; the gnomes of Davos want to do away with privacy, unless it’s their privacy. Reading books is not good for hegemonies, since these might be questioned. Reading books broadens language and its boundaries, enhances our potential, and ultimately promotes freedom. It should not astonish us, therefore, that at a time when ultraliberal doctrinaires seek to curtail our freedoms in the name of imposing their own notions of liberty, serious reading is in retreat. Reading might lead us to ask whether there’s more to life than rank consumerism, and whether we shouldn’t allow for the possibility that ultraliberals, with their championing of gay rights, feminism, and multicivilizationalism, might be totally wrong. A closed mind is not very likely to ask these questions, and so a closed mind is preferred to an open one. And is there anything as conducive to the closing of one’s mind as a poor reading diet?

Approaching the spot of the now defunct Eliot’s Bookshop from the south, one can now see dense clusters of newly built high-rise condo towers soaring in the background, gleaming in the summer sun. A result of Toronto’s overheated real estate market – which was cited as one of the reasons for the closure of the bookshop, whose owner was ostensibly unable to keep up with rising property taxes – the new buildings tower over the tumult below like multiple towers of Babel, decoupled from the hubbub of the streets and perhaps from reality as such. Taking stock of the shuttered facade of Eliot’s Bookshop and of the freshly minted high-rises beyond is to gaze at a poignant symbol of what our society has chosen as its guiding values.

The draft – an idea whose time has come (back)?

By Eugène E.

A hard-nosed individualist in my salad days, I was a sworn enemy of conscription as I cruised through that time of my life when conscription is usually relevant. The idea that young men were liable to be called up and separated from their normal lives for the sake of an abstract notion that seemed to have largely outlived its usefulness, irrespective of whether they wanted it or not, seemed to be an affront to my adolescent ideals of liberty and freedom. Fast-forward x number of years, and anyone lucky enough (or not) to run into me will find that, though I am still very much the hard-nosed individualist of yore, my take on the draft has evolved considerably.

There was a time when the draft was a coming-of-age ritual for males. While conscription in some form still exists in a number of European countries, it has been phased out in the major European states (the UK, France, and Germany). Further afield, there is no conscription in Canada, Australia, or the US outside of national crises or emergencies. While a number of reasons are typically put forth to explain the disappearance of conscription, there’s one that rarely gets much coverage: the advance of ultraliberalism.

The ascent of the ultraliberal movement and its domination of the national agenda occurred just as the relevance traditionally imputed to conscription began to melt. The army represents hierarchy, authority, and convention – all those things that ultraliberalism abhors and has tried to dismantle since the 1960s, when the hippie movement and the soixante-huitards took to the streets to tear apart everything that their ancestors had so assiduously built. The army also represents something else: manhood. The army is mostly a male thing. Male things are strongly discouraged by ultraliberals, who believe that anything oriented towards men smacks of patriarchy, misogyny, racism, colonialism, homophobia, and other such things.

Male things also reinforce a binary view of genders – namely, that there are men and women, and that the former differ from the latter. This view does not accord well with the views of ultraliberals, who believe that ideology trumps reality (in other words, that what one believes himself to be takes precedence over what one is). Ultraliberals cannot accept a reality that imposes constraints or limits. Hence the rising popularity of experiments conducted to reengineer gender notions and constructs, and, in the process, human beings themselves. There’s the Canadian couple that decided to bring up a child without any determinable gender. There are the projects in Swedish schools that try to make boys act like girls (by putting them in charge of the play kitchen), girls like boys (by encouraging them to shout “no”), or exit the entire gender-based model in general (by referring to children as “friends” instead of “boys and girls”). And then, to make sure that culture and the media back up and reinforce these adventures in absurdness, there’s the new movie exploring parenting in the age of non-binary children, appropriately directed by an individual said to have been active on the LGBTQ scene.

The purpose of all this is to challenge and master nature, render people oblivious to their own genders, and deemphasize manhood. It can’t be otherwise. It should also be obvious that this sort of ethos is incompatible with any traditional hierarchy. Moreover, the army represents a vertical power structure, while ultraliberals aim for horizontal power structures (though ironically, they have succeeded, wittingly or unwittingly, to create a vertical power structure of a different kind – one built on global capital and the extremes that it engenders). Consequently, the army needs to be rooted out. It has no place in the age of ultraliberalism.

Until recently, ultraliberals were on the right side of history. When the former Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War and ushering in a new age that, for some, signified the “end of history”, it made even less sense to maintain conscription. The West proceeded to skate across the thin ice of the Lake of Complacency.

Now that the age of naivety is over, we might want to revisit this question. Rising Islamism and other geopolitical developments have reminded us that history is alive and well. Ultraliberals have not acknowledged that reality, since it implies that the ultraliberal doctrine has flaws and is therefore in need of adjustments; but those who do not feel compelled to be beholden to the prevailing ideological dogma and who value intellectual honesty might be more receptive to the idea that our ancestors were not as stupid as ultraliberals would have us believe.

A heartbreaking incident took place last month at a Hungarian zoo. A young boy reached through a fence to touch a pregnant meerkat, got bitten by it, and shook the animal so hard he ended up killing it. The director of the zoo then posted a heartfelt message that, aside from lamenting the death of the meerkat, lambasted the lack of respect that he sees displayed by the young people of today.

The zoo director is right, of course. Discipline is one of the most valuable lessons that can be imparted to a youth, and it is one that is no longer inculcated in young people today. In simple terms, discipline is recognition of authority, awareness of constraints, and comprehension of the word “no”. None of this is clear to those who have been steeped in the belief that squashing hierarchies is creative, that the only acceptable religion is one that believes in zero authority, and that all heavenly bodies move only to prop up the brilliant destiny of the up-and-coming generation dazzling our planet. This produces adolescents who believe their parents are their “friends” and behave accordingly; who think nothing of having their feet sprawl over seats on public transit or of swearing at their teachers; and who stick their hands through fences at zoos even when they are explicitly told not to. They have a rather vague notion of their responsibilities, but they are remarkably well versed in all matters concerning their rights. In a word, we end up with ill-bred, narcissistic ogres.

The problem is only exacerbated by the growing attachment of the young to the online world, which comes at the expense of the real world as well as the social awareness and norms that the real world imposes; by the fact that contemporary role models tend to be vapid, vulgar popular culture icons with an online platform and tools to connect directly to their audiences; and by the inability of some of the Western countries, typically those with younger histories, to offer viable identities or solid cultural narratives around which their citizens can rally.

As Ortega y Gasset wrote, for a society to qualify as civilized, its members need to be prepared to submit to a higher authority on a number of questions (e.g., on matters concerning culture). To the extent that its members do not recognize higher authorities or the need to submit to them, that particular society is not civilized. It would be remiss of us not to ask how civilized modern youth happens to be, exactly.

No less urgent is the question of whether today’s youngsters are prepared to defend their values and their land. While some might think it is overly dramatic to claim that there is a risk of civil conflict on European soil, it would be imprudent to make no allowances for such a possibility. If the worst-case scenario is taken, will today’s youngsters be prepared to don a uniform and defend the future of Europe, physically or mentally? Can we count on men who as boys were encouraged to wear dresses in elementary school, as they are today in some schools in Sweden, to rise up to the challenge?

In War and Peace, Tolstoy shows that the strongest army is an army that is made up of soldiers who fight for something that they believe in. Can a young man who was brought up to question his own anatomy seriously believe in anything, let alone fight for it?

People live longer today, and so youths mature intellectually at a more advanced age than previously. Today’s youths are still working towards their high school diplomas at an age when some historical figures were already commanding troops. I am appalled at the academic prowess of those who graduate from high school today (and are accepted by universities!), if prowess is the right word. They also tend to be more aimless than past generations. Society is doing these youngsters a major disservice. Instead of having young men sit in classrooms, why not have them spend the last year of high school serving in the army? They will learn invaluable practical skills, get imbued with a strong spirit of camaraderie, obtain a sense of national belonging and identity, and acquire direction along with a sense of discipline.

This need not be seen as a proposal to (re)introduce conscription immediately and without further ado. But the need for this kind of dialogue is present and becoming more urgent. As with many important issues, it is best to have it when the temperature of the times is reasonable. It would be unfortunate if we were pushed into this dialogue by circumstances. Perhaps now is the time to preempt them.

Reams of Riemen – an ultraliberal’s cri de coeur

By Eugène E.

A Swiss acquaintance of mine once complained to me that he found the Dutch to be, among other things, superficial and haughty. I took the observation no more seriously then than I do today: though very intelligent, the gentleman had a weakness for sweeping generalizations and airtight maxims. Yet reading To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, written by the Dutch intellectual Rob Riemen, I had the mischievous thought that perhaps my Swiss acquaintance only had a certain type of Dutch intellectual in mind. If he in fact did, he couldn’t find a better example to buttress his case than this lightweight pamphlet of a book. Praised by such heavy guns as Amos Oz and Simon Schama on the back of the dust jacket, showered with accolades by reviewers, and invariably presented as “cogent” and “urgent”, this work comes pregnant with ambition. As it is, anyone expecting to soar to intellectual heights will find this intellectual journey quickly brought to a halt – the reader is more likely to run aground in some seriously shallow waters. If this is the best the Dutch intelligentsia can offer at the moment, the Netherlands is in trouble.

To Fight Against This Age contains two essays, one of which has strictly academic pretensions (“The Eternal Return of Fascism”), while the other (“The Return of Europa”), blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction, is part allegory and part sermon, with shades of techno-skepticism à la John Gray’s Heresies. It is telling when a work on fascism, especially one that runs to more than 200 pages, fails to explain what, exactly, fascism is. One would assume that any discussion of a political concept would include a definition of the term discussed, if only to gauge the author’s definition against that of the reader’s, but presumably Riemen expects his readers to come to school prepared.

Failing to define fascism does not deter Riemen from using the term liberally to label those politicians whose politics he cannot accept – a most ultraliberal reflex. When you want to defeat a political opponent, there’s nothing like an ad hominem attack to besmirch his reputation. You’re against gay marriage? Well, then you’re a homophobe – and one does not debate things with homophobes. Rather flippantly, Riemen calls Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom, which opposes mass immigration into Holland (especially when it originates in the Islamic world), “prototypes of modern fascism”, which says little about either Wilders or his party, but a fair bit about Riemen’s own bias. Donald Trump would be called the same but, rather curiously, POTUS is not mentioned in the book by name, as if Riemen were afraid of evoking some dark force by dint of writing out the last name of the current US president.

Riemen professes to be sensitive to language and terminology, and accuses modern society of failing to call the reawakening of fascism in the West by its proper name, writing: “One variant of the phenomenon of denial is the idea that changing words will change facts”. Yet his own choice of terminology reveals a starkly cavalier attitude to the meaning of words. To call Wilders a prototype of modern fascism is to show a poor understanding of the concept of fascism. As Finchelstein explains in From Fascism to Populism in History, a far more nuanced study of the topic, fascism is carelessly – and mistakenly – conflated with populism. While populism appeared after World War II as a reformulation of fascism in a world where fascism had been discredited, it evolved and changed, pursuing its own destiny. Fascism is a political ideology that utilizes violence as an end and not as a means; where it succeeds, it obliterates democracy. Populism, on the other hand, does not uphold the primacy of violence and often manifests itself without resorting to it; if it comes to power, it can undermine democratic institutions, but does not destroy them completely. Can populism mutate into fascism? Absolutely. Equally, it might not, and Finchelstein provides multiple examples to back it up.

But Riemen does not appear to be interested in this level of detail. He does not explain what constitutes fascism, be it traditional fascism or its modern variant. A humanist intellectual in the European tradition, as he perceives himself, Riemen is more interested in identifying political enemies than in analyzing what they believe in and why. He belongs to the ultraliberal camp, which subscribes to the kind of ultraliberal openness that endorses mass immigration from other civilizations, irrespective of whether or not such immigration contributes to social cohesion. Wilders does not, and so Wilders is a prototype of modern fascism. It does not occur to Riemen that those who care about their civilizational identity and want to preserve it might be practicing a kind of humanism as well – no, if you do not think that allowing Muslim immigrants to enter a European country en masse is a good idea, you’re a fascist and need to be outed as such. Riemen condemns the spectre of fascism that he sees lurking about, oblivious to the fact that intellectuals of his ilk are partially responsible for its appearance: when they subject political opponents to ostracism, as they have been doing for years, they destroy the middle ground that lies between their views and those of the extremists’, making the land of classical liberals (or reactive liberals, as I prefer to call them) uninhabitable. By maligning those who question ultraliberal tenets, however reasonably, the bien-pensants and ultraliberals push moderate voices out of the arena and leave a vacuum that eventually becomes filled by the dreaded radical right.

The scale of Riemen’s partisanship can be seen in the beliefs he chooses to arrogate to the European humanist properly steeped in Judeo-Christian values. “The follower of one or all of these beliefs,” Riemen writes, “will adhere to the idea of the European spirit and will advance a political unification of Europe”. I suppose that anyone who belongs to European civilization will subscribe to the European spirit, although people seem to have held very different ideas of what this European spirit may be throughout history. But, while I strongly advocate the idea of a European Union (note the indefinite article), it is unclear to me why people who oppose the political integration of European countries should necessarily be barred from Riemen’s ashram of Judeo-Christian humanism. Has the acceptance of diverging political views gone out of fashion in the ultraliberal world?

Riemen’s humanist believes that “our true identity is determined not by nationality, origin, language, belief, income, race, or any way in which people differ from one another, but precisely by what unites us and makes the unity of mankind possible: universal spiritual values that shape human dignity and that every man can adopt”. This is precisely the kind of treacly verbiage deployed by ultraliberals that promises the Western world the best intentions and delivers the worst results: the destruction of a people’s traditions, sense of identity and belonging; the consequent shrinking of its population and reverse colonization by other civilizations; national enfeeblement and rootlessness; terrorist atrocities on a monthly or even weekly basis. It is the kind of message that sounds very good on paper, but leads to horror in real life.

Riemen talks about the necessity of using culture to inoculate society against fascism, but he equates culture with his own ultraliberal doctrine. The kind of universalism that Riemen advances actually dilutes culture. One of the great paradoxes of our society with its embrace of unfettered tolerance of all and everything is that it actually leads to less diversity. In the past, differences were emphasized. This often made the world a cruel place, sometimes abjectly so. It also made it more diverse. Today, when differences between genders and races are denied in the name of an artificial construct authored by political correctness, when biology and anatomy are suppressed in favour of ideology, when “diversity” is nothing but a carnivalesque term that, while claiming to celebrate the multitude of all sorts of different groups, actually subsumes them under a single soulless category known as “the consumer” – in this world where all differences are negated in the name of Riemen’s universalism, diversity is becoming a relic of the past. Ultraliberalism and globalization, after all, live in the same household.

According to Riemen, our identity is not determined by language, or origin, or any such thing. By what, then? What are these “universal spiritual values” that unite a Dutchman like Riemen and a tribesman from Papua New Guinea, since we now know that it’s not language, origin, or nationality? Riemen will be sure to find a universalist commonality, which will be absurd; but the mission of ultraliberalism, as I have repeatedly written, is to convince society that the absurd actually makes perfect sense and should be part of your reality.

Riemen writes: “The essence of Europe is therefore never politics, nor economics, nor technology, no, it’s culture. Nothing else.” That is true, but it’s hard to understand how European culture can be promoted with mass migration from civilizations that culturally have nothing to do with Europe. If Germany is going through a spiritual crisis, is welcoming more than a million migrants from the Middle East really the best way to tackle it? Riemen does not tell us. For him there are no problems with Islam in Europe. He asks: “Within the European Islamic community, is there a serious political movement that attempts to ‘Islamize’ Europe?”. And, sure enough, he has the answer: “No.” Really? Can a man be so oblivious to reality? The reader is made to understand that in Riemen’s Europe, mosques are not becoming more numerous. In Riemen’s Europe, Islamic garbs are not becoming more prominent in the streets of European cities. In Riemen’s Europe, there are no sharia police patrols such as the one that has been seen in Wuppertal. In Riemen’s Europe, national Muslim associations do not ask that unused churches be turned into mosques, as has been done in France. In Riemen’s Europe, there are no banlieues or Molenbeeks. In Riemen’s Europe, terrorist attacks committed by Islamist terrorists have no connection to the religion that seems to inspire them.

Talk about the Ostrich Syndrome.

If the first essay of the book is concerned with diagnostics, the second busies itself with the treatment. It’s the weaker of the two essays in this weakling of a book, which suffers from an overabundance of citations that seem to prop things up wherever Riemen’s own thoughts fail him, and from a profusion of all the right names (Thomas Mann, Kafka, Proust) that attempt to carve out a niche in the pantheon for Riemen’s own contribution to European thought. The solutions that Riemen has in mind are introduced by an ageing Mitteleuropean intellectual who may or may not be a figment of Riemen’s own imagination. He probably is a figment, since Riemen has the Prague native repeat a scene from Kafka’s Trial that Riemen mentions earlier himself, and since it takes a special kind of literary talent to turn a real-life intellectual into a caricature. For example, Riemen endows the man with an old-fashioned accent that is probably supposed to evoke the tapping of an elegant walking stick against the cobblestone streets of old Prague, or something along those lines, and he has him puff away on a cigar between his thoughtful disquisitions (something that rattles Riemen, who mildly castigates the older man). You get the idea.

The solution, according to Riemen’s alter ego and spokesman, is not that complicated. It’s all about cultivating one’s soul, finessing one’s sense of art, culture, and philosophy – well-intentioned ideas that represent a complete lack of understanding when it comes to human nature. The cultivation of one’s soul is rarely a top priority for most people – a fact of life that fascists, whose ghost all such exalted cultivation is supposed to drive away, appreciate much better than Riemen et al. A much more sensible approach to keeping fascism at bay is not to attempt to win the hearts and minds of people – an ultraliberal hobbyhorse – but to avoid creating situations that would be propitious to wide acceptance of fascist ideas. In this respect, ultraliberalism has failed dismally. Riemen’s “solution” reminds me of the poet Joseph Brodsky, who once said something to the effect that if he were president, he’d improve the state of affairs by ordering a nationwide bombardment – only instead of bombs, airplanes (or was it fighter jets?) would cover the benighted populace below with copies of Proust’s works. Yes, that would do it.

It’s not all ultraliberal bunkum. Riemen makes some good points. He is right to point out the main imperfection of the European Union, which in its present state is a socioeconomic juggernaut that has everything except the one thing that will give it the impetus that it needs to thrive – values, a spiritual centre that can exert a centripetal influence on all Europeans (his criticism of the symbolism implicit in the aesthetically ugly buildings housing the EU bureaucracy is poignant).

Riemen is also right to censure society’s fanatical embrace of materialism, which leaves an enormous spiritual and cultural void. What he neglects to add is that materialism is the gift of ultraliberalism, which, by championing radical openness, has succeeded in turning the developed world into a playground for transnational corporations. The satisfaction of one’s desires at the most primitive level as society’s creed is, in fact, a result of democracy. Democracy is the rule of the people, while culture (the kind of culture Riemen has in mind) is the preserve of the few. High culture is the domain of a minority group and, as such, is not particularly compatible with a democratic ethos. On the other hand, consumerism, as something that can appeal to vast swathes of people and transcend differences, thrives well in democratic societies, as we’ve seen. This is an uncomfortable truth that Riemen – and other ultraliberals – prefer not to explore.

It is indeed a paradox that haunts ultraliberal thought. To be sure, Riemen does differentiate between democracy and mass democracy. Yet he fails to explain how and why they differ, if they actually do differ. Riemen blames the return of fascism (or what he deems to be fascism) on mass democracy, omitting the fact that undesirable election results are inevitable in any society that considers the vote of a Nobel laureate (or, fine, of a Riemen) to be equal to the vote of a nineteen-year-old high school graduate who thinks that Americans speak American and confuses Napoleon Bonaparte with Napoleon Dynamite. Now that the spigots of the era of plenty seem to have been turned off, ultraliberals are forced to confront the reality that democracy comes with one not insignificant problem: election results might be at odds with their values, wishes, or plain common sense. Ultraliberals are still smarting from the victory of Trump and the triumph of the Leave camp in the Brexit referendum – two events that are nothing short of apocalyptic for the ultraliberal movement. In true democratic style, they’ve been trying to reverse both outcomes: rumblings concerning a second referendum on Brexit are constantly heard in the UK, while in the US, the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency is questioned on a daily basis (if it’s not the Russian connection, it’s some porn actress) and so ferociously that it’s truly remarkable that Trump still manages to perform his duties. The problem for ultraliberals is that, while they can challenge isolated events, they cannot challenge the entire paradigm, for that would require a major rethink of democracy as a concept – something that, for obvious reasons, would be very difficult for ultraliberals to do without renouncing their entire dogma. Perhaps even impossible.

As so often happens with ultraliberals, Riemen has the right diagnosis, but he is getting his prescriptions all mixed up. If Riemen were to have his way, the destiny of Europe would continue on its current trajectory. There would be more tolerance, more openness, and more universalism such that appeals to a Riemen – more ultraliberalism, in short. This age might be threatened by populism or even fascism, but the march of ultraliberalism in the West has mostly been, with some notable hiccups, thus far inexorable. In view of that, the title of Riemen’s book is something of a misnomer: Riemen is not fighting against this age, but against another age that might be engendered by the excesses of this one. As far as this age is concerned, Riemen should be reasonably content. And, given some of the existential problems that ultraliberalism has generated in modern society, Riemen’s more-of-the-same, politics-as-usual approach (for that is what it comes down to, when all is said and done) is not quite the cure that’s needed at the present time. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen and their parties might not be the solution. Neither is Rob Riemen – and To Fight Against This Age amply demonstrates that.

As for my Swiss acquaintance, I hope he won’t get his hands on a copy of this book. It won’t do the Dutch any good.


Dropping the F-bomb

By Eugène E.

The most surprising thing about the recent Facebook debacle, involving Cambridge Analytica, is that people are genuinely surprised by it. Allegations that Facebook user data may have ended up in the hands of a third party that may have used the data for political purposes have raised the ire of legislators, not to speak of Facebook users, who seem to be appalled by the realization that exhibitionism comes at a price – not unlike a woman who displays herself at an uncurtained window in a state of undress and is then astonished to learn that she’s been seen naked by those in the street.

This kind of user data misuse is unavoidable in a society that seems determined to do away with limits. I have previously written about the parallel growth of the ultraliberal movement and corporatocracy. While one represents sociopolitical interests and the other industry, they have at least one common aim: the destruction of limits. Neither group can accept them; limits are anathema to both bien-pensants and big business alike. For ultraliberals, limits imply curbs on moral laissez-faire, which is highly unattractive for a group that is eager to embrace non-traditional marriage unions, promote nonexistent genders and gender subsets, impose a gender-neutral language, and to otherwise conflate the pathological with the normal by undoing existing moral constraints.

For the transnational corporate world, which wants to turn the planet into one gigantic market, limits typically mean borders, regulations, tariffs, taxes, possible capital controls, etc. – bureaucratic impediments that prevent companies from unlimited profitability and are consequently to be resisted at all costs. What’s more, the conservative burgher is as much an enemy to the ultraliberal movement as he is to World Inc.: fiscally responsible citizens aren’t usually given to licentiousness or hedonism. Big Business doesn’t need prudent savers. Big Business needs, first and foremost, consumers – consumers who can be saddled with debt, preferably starting at a young age, when they’re at their most gullible; consumers who will feel compelled to buy new products, regardless of whether or not these products are needed; consumers who will mow each other down as they storm stores on Black Fridays; consumers who will pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards they should have never been issued. The “shop ’til you drop” mantra, the lack of any purchasing restraint, dovetails wells with ultraliberal hedonism, according to which moral barriers are relics of the past or signs of a repressed inner self, and anything – or just about – goes. In other words, what’s good for ultraliberalism can be equally good for Big Business, and vice versa. When the two take on limits, they are fighting much the same battle.

We live at a time of unprecedented human reengineering. Here, too, we can see signs of the link between ultraliberalism and corporatocracy. Ultraliberals are trying to bring about a world in which the traditional structure as intended by nature (or a higher sentient being, for those who are deistically inclined) is challenged, where such things as gender, sexual orientation, and family are nothing but loose, flexible constructs; the fact that modern ultraliberal society allows individuals to overcome anatomy and opt out of the binary-gender model shows that ultraliberals have succeeded, if only artificially, in creating a new type of human being, however inauthentic such a creation might be.

At the same time, the corporate world, through its aggressive promotion of fusion between man and machine, is also trying to shape man into something else. While Ray Kurzweil’s “human” of the future is still confined to the future, we’re increasingly exposed to a deluge of gadgets that enjoy ever more intimacy with their users – just think of “smart glasses”, which lend those who sport them a decidedly cyborg-like look, or the phone app that allows users to confirm consent before having sexual congress. The sight of a couple glued to their smartphones, instead of to each other, while supposedly enjoying each other’s company, demonstrates the ascendancy of technology over human interaction.

Privacy is at the core of the human experience. It is also a concept that doesn’t sit very well with Big Business, which is rightly suspicious of it. Privacy is the ability of individuals to exercise control over that part of their lives that is supposed to be unmonitored. By definition, then, it is time that is – or should be – off-limits to marketing departments and sales teams. It is harder to study a consumer’s habits and preferences if you don’t know what exactly he’s up to. Privacy is problematic for World Inc. for another reason: it can promote the concept of solitude and, God forbid, reflection, for this is a time when people might be inclined to think. For Big Business, this is highly undesirable: when people think, they neither spend nor consume. One of the major accomplishments of the reigning corporatocracy is to have inculcated in consumers a fear of solitude – a rapidly growing number of people in our society are no longer capable of being alone with their thoughts. They need their gadgets as they need oxygen. This comes at the expense of their privacy.

Equally, it seems, privacy is a problem for ultraliberals: given the chance to think, people might question those values that have been foisted on society by the high priests of ultraliberalism and, as they spread the enlightenment as interpreted by the bien-pensants, are therefore supposed to go unquestioned. Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook (and its soul, one would add if Facebook only had one), knew what he was doing when he questioned the notion of privacy as a social norm. If it were up to Facebook, privacy would be branded abnormal. Facebook’s profit model is based on indulging people’s need to see and to be seen by as many people as possible – the very antithesis of privacy.

Neither does Facebook intend to stop there. To use the dating app Tinder, for example, users need to have a Facebook account. One wonders about the extent of the arrangements made by Facebook and Tinder, and the strength of the walls between the two companies – if there are any. What and how much does Facebook know about the private life and sexual preferences of Tinder users? And where does it all end? Probably nowhere. In an environment that neither places nor recognizes limits, there is no end. The sky is no longer the limit – precisely because there’re no limits; and indeed, at a time when tycoons send privately owned rockets into space, the whole idea of the sky being the limit is rather quaint. As one financier says in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in response to a question about how much money would be enough for him to walk away from it all: “more”. “More” might well sum up the appetite of companies like Facebook. It is no coincidence that Zuckerberg seems to be LGBT- and BLM-friendly — if any political doctrine can seduce a Zuckerberg, it is bound to be ultraliberalism.

In fact, Facebook has been busy developing an entirely new type of product: the consumer. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown (and as many observers have known all along), Facebook users are not just consumers; they’re also products, to be packaged and resold like any other merchandise. In this paradigm, people are not simply offered “stuff”; they are “stuff” themselves, to be offered to other market participants. This consumer-product is the new man representing the brave new age of no limits: a sexless, inchoate creature unencumbered by any kind of identity except the one that determines his “user habits”; a product to be marketed and sold; an entity whose individuality is asserted by his virtual existence.

This new man has been stripped of his privacy: his relationships, friends, tastes, and career history are available for display to all and sundry. Since privacy is inextricably linked to the human experience, its dismantlement constitutes an attack on what it is to be human. One Russian film director said some time ago that the problem with the people designing video games and such is that they’re, for the most part, ignorant when it comes to aesthetics. That is to say, they might be brilliant mathematicians or computer scientists, but they have no foundation in the field of the humanities, which is that branch of human knowledge that deals with all those sticky things known as ethics and morality. Computer science, for all its indispensability, has nothing to say on the subject of what it is to be human, or on the difference between right and wrong. The point here is that the architects of cutting-edge technology may not have a moral compass that will give a moral texture to their inventions. The creators of technology that is supposed to change our world may not know whether these changes will be good or bad; what’s worse, they might not care.

Make of this argument what you will, but the Facebook controversy, along with some other events, lends credence to the director’s argument. Recently, an interview with the founder of Ethernet (incidentally, also a Russian) appeared in the press. Reading this article, it is hard not to feel that, while the very young bitcoin wizard is extremely bright and highly intelligent, something crucial is missing – the sense that there is a belief system in place and, if that’s the case, what that belief system might be. There are some vague intimations of wanting to do what’s good, but that’s neither here nor there – Facebook doubtless also wants to make the world a better place, while Google’s avowed mission to do no evil verges on parody. It is possible that age is a factor, particularly as the journalist who took the interview is also in her mid-twenties; but the thought that it can’t be reduced to that alone is not a comforting one.

There was a time, about which I do not intend to wax nostalgic, when people had photo albums. The sum total of their memories was stored in the safety of their homes, away from prying eyes and lurking voyeurs. While these memories were always at the risk of being destroyed by a fire or some other such calamity, there was one thing that people enjoyed then and that they don’t have today: privacy. Social media have empowered people to share their lives, no matter how vapid, with an unlimited number of people – theoretically, with the entire planet. That is extraordinary empowerment. It is also an extraordinary opportunity for abuse – as much for those users who can now find an audience for all sorts of views, including the most violent ones, as for the social networks themselves, which now have access to vast pools of user data and which know how to keep one step ahead of the regulators. However strong the assurances provided by a social media platform in its terms of service, when you willingly submit your private life to another party, you’re relinquishing some of your rights to privacy – and, consequently, a part of your humanness.

Should Facebook users have known better, or should the regulators have shown more initiative? The question of whether, and to what extent, lawmakers need to protect citizens from their worst instincts is an eternal one. Recent controversies, however, only confirm that, while some companies might be too big to fail, no company is too big to be unregulated. There will be calls for greater regulatory oversight, and it is likely that these calls will be at least somewhat heeded by the authorities. One can’t help but wonder, though, whether it is possible to rein in industry juggernauts the likes of Facebook without renouncing some of the ultraliberal values that have accompanied the rise of the corporatocracy – a scenario that will be completely unacceptable to the torchbearers of ultraliberalism.


By Eugène E.

In the 25th chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli outlines his view of the way human affairs are governed. Aside from acknowledging the role of fortune (read: fate) in the lives of men, Machiavelli introduces the concept of “virtù”, which represents a certain force – a certain vitality – that rules over that half of human destiny that is beyond the purview of fortune. Fortune, which is female in Machiavelli’s conception of world order, cannot be tamed, but virtù – a term that evades a precise translation – lends itself to the human touch; to resist the caprices of fortune, it is necessary to be able to harvest and manage the power of virtù. Such was the weltanschauung of a great thinker living in medieval Florence. What would he think about the state of the world today? This kind of speculation is mischievous but, if Machiavelli were alive, he might be inclined to say that Europe lost its virtù, leaving itself entirely at the mercy of fortune; and yours truly would be inclined to agree.

After a brief hiatus, two horrific events that took place in France last month served as reminders that Islamism and its derivatives had been merely hibernating in the West – as if there had been any doubt, that is. Officially, only one of the two incidents – the supermarket attack in Trèbes, in the south of France – qualifies as a terrorist attack, but the nature of the second incident cannot be divorced from the first, since it’s one and the same disease. Both tragedies received sufficient but brief coverage before being tossed into Lethe to be sent further downstream and, eventually, empty out into the lake of oblivion.

In the first attack, a gunman acting alone highjacked a car in Carcassonne, drove to nearby Trèbes, and burst into a supermarket to take hostages. Aside from the gunman himself, the attack claimed a total of four victims, including a police officer who had voluntarily swapped places with one of the hostages in the supermarket.

The other incident involved the violent murder of an octogenarian woman who had successfully evaded a certain death at the hands of Nazi butchers decades before, only to be bludgeoned in the safety of her home in Paris in what was supposedly a burglary. On the face of it, the murder had nothing to do with the Trèbes attack. However, you know there’s more to the story than meets the eye when the authorities refuse to disclose the identities of the men charged with the crime while diffidently conceding that anti-Semitism might have been a factor. The media have been less timid; according to a number of newspapers, one of the suspects is Muslim and knew his victim since childhood. He believed that the elderly lady, by dint of being a Jew, must have been rich and was consequently an attractive target.

The ultraliberal establishment would have us believe that both cases are isolated episodes committed by fringe lunatics. At no point should society conclude that both attacks are part of the same pattern or that there is a pattern in the first place. To admit that there is would be tantamount to admitting that there is a problem in dire need of resolution, something ultraliberals are loathe to do – out of ideological fealty, political helplessness, or both. In all fairness, the scale of the problem is so daunting that any such admissions are problematic, but they are no less pressing for it.

In the case of the Trèbes attack, the terrorist has been described as having had minor brushes with the law in the past, which is somehow supposed to make the citizenry feel better. Neither Islam nor Islamist terrorism is the problem: the author of the carnage was simply a wastrel, a ne’er-do-well, a lowlife with a troubled past, who had decided to pen the last chapters of his sad biography by taking up the Islamic banner. The root of the problem, we’re made to understand, is nothing more than a troubled individual. In other words, roulez, il n’y a rien à voir, as the French expression goes.

Two things should be pointed out. One is that contemporary Islam seems to be soaking up those who want to inflict maximum damage to the lives and well-being of others; and when one dares to ask why it is Islam (and not, say, Buddhism) that, like a solitary lamp drawing moths on a sultry night, attracts the violent and the marginalized, answers are not forthcoming. The other is that, if the Carcassonne terrorist was an aberration, we still need to explain away the local youths who attacked journalists reporting on the story in the Carcassonne neighbourhood where the terrorist had lived, and who greeted the police by saluting the terrorist. Photos of the neighbourhood in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, showing heavily armed police in riot gear, suggest a city preparing for a second revolution. That is the truly frightening thing about the Trèbes attack: the Carcassonne terrorist has far more sympathizers living in France’s bosom than the media would care to admit or the French would be willing to imagine, sympathizers who demonstrate their visceral hatred of France and everything it stands for by attacking members of one of its most important institutions – the security apparatus (recall the disturbing episode on New Year’s Eve, when two police officers responding to an emergency call were savagely attacked by a crowd in a Paris suburb full of non-European immigrants). Many of these youths were born in France and are French citizens, but they do not identify with France, nor will they ever do so, which means that France’s immigration policy is nothing but a fiasco, and the “Frenchness” of some of those who are French by birth and citizenship is highly suspect, however unsanitary such a statement might be in political terms. It is no exaggeration to say that France, along with the major European countries, has a fifth column in its midst. If one were to reach for platitudes, it would be appropriate to speak of a ticking bomb – only the bombs are already going off.

In the case of the second attack, there’s more to the murder of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll than a case of a burglary gone wrong, even when the anti-Semitism said to have been a factor in the crime has been fully accounted for. Anti-Semitism has a long history in France, as it does in other European countries; and the history is a complex one. But modern French anti-Semitism is very different from its traditional variant. The traditional strain of anti-Semitism was mostly (though certainly not entirely) the preserve of the far right, inspired by ethnic, religious, and class prejudice. The contemporary strain has all of that, but it also contains a geopolitical dimension, since the growing Muslim polity in France has been issued by countries where anti-Semitic sentiment is a function of politics in the Middle East – namely, that of the existence of a Jewish state and the animosity that it inspires among its Arab-Muslim neighbours. Arguably this makes the French anti-Semitism of today far more virulent and violent than it has ever been throughout French history – when someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy claims that Jews have never felt as unsafe in France as they do now, alarm bells should go off. If Lévy’s observation is accurate, it is probably not due to the Le Pen dynasty, the National Front, Action Française, or the atavistic stirrings of the Dreyfus Affair; it is a result of France’s surging Muslim population and the politics it has brought to France. There is nothing more impervious to borders and customs than ideological baggage. The most important source of anti-Semitism today is the Muslim community – the same community whose members routinely attack French police and soldiers, drive trucks into crowds, gun down concertgoers, decapitate priests, and plant bombs. In this sense, there is a link between the Carcassonne atrocities and the killing of Mireille Knoll, however tenuous. Incidentally, the purported comment made by one of Knoll’s alleged killers, to the effect that she must have had money since she was Jewish, echoes the reasoning, if it can be called that, of those who kidnapped, tortured and murdered Ilan Halimi, another Frenchman of Jewish origin, in 2007.

There was a time, not that long ago, when Europe knew how to make use of virtù, which made it possible for European powers to dominate much of the world and project its will far beyond the European continent. As one journalist has written, when European states were the colonizers, the colonized did not blow up people in European capitals. However simplistic this might sound, the general idea behind the statement is solid. For Machiavelli, virtù is associated with impetuousness, daring, and audacity, qualities that are favoured by fortune. Europe was certainly all those things before it turned to navel-gazing, self-loathing, and auto-flagellation. It doesn’t follow that colonialism should be restored, but it does mean that, by abandoning the colonial experience and other such nastiness, Europe also relinquished its virtù, losing the vital force that underwrote its identity and Europe’s ability to assert it. The most powerful civilization on the planet proceeded to dismantle itself, gradually eradicating its very Europeanness. Ultraliberalism was adopted as the guiding dogma, spawning a remarkable asymmetry in relations between the West and “the rest”. Ultraliberals have imputed to their doctrine a kind of universalism born of arrogance and complacency. The arrogance made it a truism that ultraliberalism was the best doctrine available to humanity, while the complacency held that the adoption of the ultraliberalism of the West by “the rest” was a foregone conclusion.

As we have learned, these assumptions were misplaced. Recognizing this, however, does not make the asymmetry go away. Muslims are not just free to roam about Europe; they demand – and are accorded – the right to build mosques and bring their customs to the streets of European cities. On the other hand, foreigners cannot enter Saudi Arabia without a visa, which is not easily obtainable, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are strictly off-limits to non-Muslims. In Canada, Sikhs asked that they be allowed to wear turbans as part of their Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) uniform instead of the traditional flat-brimmed hat; and the request was approved. It is hard to imagine that a similar request filed by a westerner aspiring to join India’s law enforcement agencies will be looked upon with the same indulgence. Where’s the reciprocity in that? Europe (and, more generally, the West) is obligated to accommodate non-Europeans at the expense of its Europeanness, while non-European societies suffer from no such compunction.

During a television talk show a few years ago, Nadine Morano, a French politician and former cabinet minister, called France a country of “the white race” and Judeo-Christian roots, and expressed her desire that it remain so, a remark for which she was naturally taken to task. It was the reaction of her interlocutor, a French journalist, that was curious. Debating with Morano, he asserted that France could well become a Muslim country one day and that there was nothing wrong with the idea anyhow. When an individual thinks that the disappearance of his own society and its replacement by another is not a big deal, that individual cannot lay claim to having virtù; or else, it’s a very peculiar kind of virtù. While one can only guess at how many people share these feelings in Europe today, the current situation suggests that legion is their name.

When Europe had virtù, its destiny was cosseted by fortune (fortune favours the brave); when it lost its virtù, it exposed itself to the ravages of fate and chance. Fortune moved on to rain its privileges down on those who wield virtù more deftly – perhaps on those who are sufficiently impetuous to cross a sea, disembark on strange but affluent shores, and displace the host peoples. While fortune-favoured Muslim migrants pour in, virtù-less Europeans organize gay parades, make gender-neutral arrangements, and pass legislation that is inimical to family life and population growth. The contemporary West is thus short on both virtue and virtù. No doubt there will be another Trèbes that will claim more innocent lives – in France or in some other (West) European country. No doubt the French president (or his European colleague) will talk about meting out justice to those who have committed the heinous crime, and remind the world that we will not cave in and that ultraliberal values will continue to be upheld, complete with more gay parades, more gender-neutral arrangements, and more multicivilizationalism. No doubt, then, the root causes will remain unaddressed, and yet another terrorist attack will follow. Such is the price of losing virtù and leaving yourself open to the blows of fortune – the price of being virtù-less.

One might well ask whether the loss of virtù preceded the advent of ultraliberalism, or whether it was ultraliberalism that gave rise to the loss of virtù. What came first, the chicken or the egg? This question must remain unanswered. Perhaps the loss of virtù and the rise of ultraliberalism took place concurrently; there might well have been a reflexive relationship between the two. The exact answer is not that important. A more urgent question is whether Europe can recover virtù and use it to build a stronger, healthier and richer Europe, a Europe that is proud of its Europeanness and whose very existence continues to be predicated on the quality of being European. The answer to that question can’t come soon enough.

“Part of the problem”

By Eugène E.

As the plane glided across a vast cerulean expanse somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean, I was presented with a truth less savory than the hot dinner served by the cabin crew, if that was possible: I realized I was “part of the problem”. It had all begun innocently enough – with my decision to take advantage of the in-flight entertainment program and watch a movie. Something digestible, unimposing, jet-lag-friendly – I’ve never been much of a movie aficionado, and mainstream cinema works rather well with interminable transatlantic journeys. There is something about the air in an aircraft cabin that makes one susceptible to the kind of entertainment that makes few demands on one’s aesthetic sensibilities and that would be eschewed in closer proximity to terra firma – or so it had seemed to me as the opening credits of Snatched unfolded on the screen.

If there is one good thing about your typical media pabulum, it’s that it shows you the watermark of our times. There is a reflexive relationship between the media and the society it informs and entertains. On the one hand, the big studios of Hollywood want to cater to the tastes of their audiences (give the people what they want); on the other hand, the products that they deliver shape the perceptions, wants, and needs of those who are supposed to inspire them. The public propels the media; the media conditions the public.

Snatched, a comedy that runs on the twin engines of slapstick humour and slapdash vulgarity, came out in 2017 – and it shows. It was released before Weinstein and the #MeToo movement became household names for all the wrong reasons, but that’s irrelevant. The (white) man had already been consigned to the outposts of purgatory; women were getting primed to become the torchbearers of an Olympian heroism born of nothing greater than their gender. The only thing lacking was a good scapegoat; and Weinstein was perfect. The conditions that made it so easy for society to grind any overly sexed male into dust were already in place, and the media had been co-opted (or had co-opted itself) long ago. For years, movies, among other conduits, had been preparing society for both Weinstein and #MeToo; and Snatched, which shows how even Hollywood’s fluff can carry considerable ideological ammunition, is an example of that ultraliberal indoctrination.

The movie hardly merits any commentary about its quality, but the implicit ideological messages are interesting. The heroines of this cinematographic masterpiece – an in-your-face, slightly awkward damsel and her neurotic mother – take off to South America for some girls’ fun, where they run into serious trouble with a couple of bad hombres. The tone is jaunty and mischievous, even when people get clobbered with shovels or fall into precipices, but the hidden ideas contain far less levity. The women are the film’s over-sung heroes, constantly in danger of falling prey to priapic cads and other such hunters of female flesh, whom they defeat with sheer “girl power”. The men who do have some redeeming value are inconsequential: one (the damsel’s brother) suffers from psychological issues that prevent him from leaving home; the other, a gringo marooned in the South American jungle, is no homebody and is even endowed with some rugged virility, for which he is made to pay with terminal cancer and, eventually, a one-way plunge from a cliff. For a man to make it to the ending credits and retain the viewer’s sympathy, he needs to be sexually disarming and unthreatening – a eunuch, in a word, if only metaphorically. The films ends with the two hapless Amazons in Kuala Lumpur; the ladies are having a blast, and the damsel – still a damsel – blows off a potential seducer. The implicit message is clear throughout: when (white) men are not dangerous, they are utterly superfluous. In either case, women are better off on their own.

Still intent on getting my fill of the movie menu, my next choice was The Family Stone. For those who haven’t seen it, this is the kind of movie that is supposed to make you feel good, with all the guffaw-inducing and lachrymose moments strategically placed at all the right junctures. An uptight, pretentious urbanite (Sarah Jessica Parker) is forced to spend Christmas with her fiancee’s unconventional, idiosyncratic family (the Stones), whose matriarch is played by Diane Keaton. If memory serves, the synopsis of the film as presented by the in-flight entertainment program describes the family as “bohemian”, which is just as well. The family certainly has all the right ingredients to qualify as one. One of the family members, for example, happens to be deaf. This is a physical impairment, and the subject can be treated with the thoughtfulness that it merits. Thoughtfulness, however, falls by the wayside when ultraliberal boxes need to be checked off, so the deaf character also happens to be gay. To introduce the right degree of diversity into the very WASPish Stone clan, the deaf homosexual is given a black man for a partner, at which point this turns into an ultraliberal caricature. Throughout history, art was preoccupied with beauty and the heightening of aesthetic sensibilities; the sculptures of Michelangelo and Bernini convey to us this lofty obsession with capturing perfection. These days, art, which in many cases is a paid agent of certain ideological currents, revels in placing all forms of pathology on a pedestal. Who needs Bernini when you have RuPaul’s Drag Race?

But there’s more to this than a predilection for deformity: however bohemian the Stone family happens to be, in the final analysis, it is made to look quite conventional. They might be quirky, the movie says, but they’re just as normal as you; and the movie is constructed in such a way as to evoke feelings of affinity in the audience. This is by design: ultraliberalism needs to swaddle the abnormal in the warm linen of normality and pad it with the bubble wrap of acceptability. The movie, it should be noted, was made in 2005 – more than a decade ago – and, by that point, it had many precedents dealing in this sort of merchandise. In other words, an entire generation was brought up to believe that what had once been unacceptable was now palatable, acceptable, and even desirable.

After the movie was over, I decided to try the papers. I had on me the most recent weekend editions of the FT – my default choice in the realm of quality journalism – and I spread them out to confirm that even the most respectable newspapers are not immune to ideological viruses. The front page of one of the supplements of the oldest edition I had was monopolized by an article whose author, a woman, took issue with the fact that women are inducted into the hall of equality on the basis of distinct, gender-based qualities that allow them to perform as well as their male counterparts, if not better. This line of thinking is a problem, in the author’s opinion, since it still advances the argument that there are intrinsic differences between the two sexes; and the admission of there being any differences between men and women cannot be countenanced by feminists, who believe that differences, no matter how natural or inevitable, lead to inequalities and must therefore be eradicated. Nothing short of absolute equality – the kind of equality that rules out all possible differences – will be accepted by the ideological school of which the author of this article is clearly an honours student, whatever human anatomy has to say about the matter.

Other parts of the newspaper were equally contaminated. A now familiar sight, there were (white) male columnists saying their mea culpas for being – yes – “part of the problem”. One atoned for having committed the high crime of defaulting to the masculine pronoun in his book on economics; as he wrote with unmistakeable pride, he had been fully rehabilitated by the time he set out to write his next book. Another columnist indulged in auto-flagellation because he’d once happened to hear another man propose a jaunt to a nearby strip club during an all-male business outing. The fact that the columnist had not gone along does not, in his own estimate, reduce his complicity in being “part of the problem”. A John Updike article in the book-reviews section began with the late writer’s putative misogyny and then proceeded to exculpate him; but the fact that it worked off a feminist premise and seen through that prism speaks volumes.

It might not be surprising, then, that by the time the plane had landed and I’d stepped into the airy halls of Toronto’s international airport, it was obvious to me that I was “part of the problem” myself – not because of some infraction committed against the fairer sex, but simply by virtue of having been born without a vagina. There it is, then: I, too, am guilty. I, too, am “part of the problem”. #MeToo.

Modern feminists, like their brothers-in-arms in the LGBT movement, are like unruly, spoiled children who take it for granted that the whole world must constantly acknowledge their existence. They need to announce themselves to all and sundry relentlessly and with much noise. The higher its pitch and the louder its choir, the better. A French minister – a woman and, naturally enough, one in change of the gender equality portfolio – takes part in a play in which she informs the world that her vagina is angry (?): achieving full gender parity one play at a time. An actress goes on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony and proposes an “inclusion rider”, which sounds a lot like just another tool designed to promote fairness for some at the expense of others – a tax on those who are deemed to be overly privileged, whether this privileged state is real or just an ultraliberal fata morgana. And on and on it goes.

In Toronto, a bastion of ultraliberalism, “fem noise” is heard with the consistency of muezzins’ prayer calls in a Muslim city. Men are reminded everywhere that they are “part of the problem”. Offices are agog over safe spaces for women and various diversity initiatives; companies are obsessing over getting to the top of gender equality survey rankings. Feminist shirts and badges are spotted; there are advertisements for novels written “from a woman’s point of view”. Looking at some of the messages on Toronto’s public transit, it’s easy to believe that every woman in Canada’s largest city is in immediate danger of being sexually assaulted as soon as she enters a public transit vehicle, and that the entire city shivers in a culture of unending rape. More like South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid years, when it was estimated that a woman was raped every three seconds, than one of the safest cities in North America. Buses and subway trains have labels posted in prominent areas that inform passengers that “#ThisIsWhere Em and Lisa were attacked for their sexuality” (one might well wonder what Em and Lisa were doing that would have given away their sexuality) or “#ThisIsWhere Ashley saw a stranger leering at her” (as if a leer is an instance of sexual assault – a leer can make one uncomfortable, but it is a facial expression; and these can be easily misinterpreted). Are we sure we’re still within the bounds of reason?

Inappropriate behaviour cannot be excused. Every woman should always feel safe in the streets (and anywhere else, for that matter). But it’s worth asking whether this sort of “awareness program” (which seems to have coincided with the rise of the #MeToo movement) is the best way to tackle the safety of women, and whether things may not have gone too far and in the wrong direction. If things are as bad as the ads and warnings suggest, this is a security issue and may be best dealt with by better policing.

It’s also worth asking whether this kind of culture will not lead to a McCarthyist climate of fear and denunciations, with sexually lobotomized men who are cowed and apprehensive, and trigger-happy women ready to torpedo reputations. Those who take this hypothesis to be hyperbolic should not overlook the recent history of false claims that left towering names in ruins (the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose stellar career was cut short by accusations of sexual violence at a New York hotel that were later dropped by the prosecution on account of the victim’s credibility, comes to mind – while Strauss-Kahn was eventually exonerated by the US authorities, his presidential aspirations in France were effectively quashed).

The ultraliberal revolution (and it’s certainly a revolution) has been made possible by an unprecedented fusion between political life and entertainment, serious and non-serious, lofty and mainstream; by the invasion of every branch of society by mass thinking and mass behaviour. The role that the media has played in all this cannot be overstated.

As the media conditioned the public, the latter adapted itself to the new ideology. Some of the greatest changes wrought by the ultraliberal revolution are those that have taken place in women – in their bodies, their appearance, their comportment. As these changes have been brewing for many years, they have been all but unnoticeable; they’re all the greater for it. Generalizations can be dangerous, but one thing is undeniable: in many parts of the Western world – certainly in Canada and the US – women no longer cultivate their femininity. They may choose a masculine look, opting for tattoos or letting themselves be overtaken by heft. They might neglect their looks entirely, making no effort to appeal to the eye. Or they might make considerable investments in their bodies: the sight of garish sneakers, yoga mats, and liberally exposed skin has become ubiquitous in urban settings; but these women are now trimming themselves for a different reason. In the past, a woman took care of herself to make herself more attractive, which would then enhance her appeal to men; today she is taking care of herself for the sake of herself. Many will call it emancipation; others might say it’s just rank narcissism. Take your pick. The upshot is that women, on the whole, have become less feminine.

What will that do to our way of life? Coupling implies the laws and rules of attraction; if women renounce the imperative to look attractive, what effect will that have on coupling? The reality is that we’re witnessing nothing less than the death of romanticism as a form of life. Elegance has been replaced with convenience; femininity with independence; feelings and idealism with bureaucratization and compartmentalization. This has impacted language: women now have “partners” – an odd way to describe someone you consider the love of your life, but perhaps not so odd after all, for that is what a man happens to be for the modern independent woman: at best, a partner, a stakeholder, a joint equity owner with a 50% share in the enterprise; at worst, a tool, an instrument. This has also impacted the world of online dating: view the emergence of Bumble, which claims to have removed for men the burden of approaching women and which aspires to level “the playing field” by making it only possible for women to initiate the first approach. This ultraliberally positive corporate message belies the truth that women on Bumble get to choose and men don’t. The app takes it as an article of faith that “relationships should begin with respect and equality”. Given that men are turned into passive cattle on that site, we can see exactly what sort of equality Bumble has in mind.

The big question is whether, given all these jet streams, the affected societies can continue to reproduce at a level that will ensure their survival – whether children can be begotten in an environment powered by formulaic relationships and illuminated with lab-like lighting. The chief prerequisite for any society is continuity: a civilization needs people to keep on going. A civilization without people will end up being relevant to historians only. It’s a big question that predictably receives no treatment from feminists, bien-pensants, #MeToo crusaders, and other ultraliberals who are busy trying to free themselves from the shackles of an odiously oppressive (white) patriarchy. Their propaganda, a cauldron of ultraliberal reflexes and sentiment, is bereft of thought and analysis; their ideology is vicious, aggressive, and is no more tolerant than the hidebound ideologies it purports to challenge – just witness the experience of the Google employee who dared to challenge the sacred notion that there are differences between men and women, and who ended up paying for it with his job.

The recent feminist hysteria has reconfirmed what was already known about ultraliberalism. The ultraliberal movement, of which feminism is one of the main components, aspires to be a new Christianity without its God and its thou-shall-nots, but it only succeeds in turning into an amorphous ideology as bland as a vegan diet. It tries to promote egalitarianism, with mass appeal to every ethnic group that exists and every sub-gender that doesn’t, but only creates a shapeless morass, anarchical and uncultured. It strives to be modern, and ends up disseminating sexlessness and lifestyles that, if left unchecked, will leave any society barren. It makes promises of happiness, yet spawns mood and personality disorders. It preaches tolerance while suppressing all forms of dissent. It accuses political opponents of base populism and has yet mastered the genre. It excoriates ideological adversaries for their propaganda efforts and, starting with the cradle, brainwashes the public on a truly Orwellian scale.

But perhaps the lady doth protest too much. A better use of my time, from an ultraliberal’s standpoint, would be to declare that I am “part of the problem”, apologize for being a (white) male, and do my penance – or, better yet, as was suggested recently by a UK minister, albeit in a very different context, I should just shut up and go away.

RUSSIA GOES TO VOTE (and why you should care)

By Eugène E.

As the results of the presidential election due to take place in Russia on March 18 are something of a foregone conclusion, some might bristle at the title of this blog post. Why write about an election that many consider little more than a sham process? There are several reasons. First, Vladimir Putin, the man expected to continue governing Russia as he’s been doing since the dawn of this century, is reputed to be a stickler for rules and procedures – an election should take place, if only to satisfy all the formalities. It might be interesting to see how this one’s orchestrated. Second, despite the authoritarian, statist nature of his regime, even Putin’s opponents have never contested Putin’s victory in the last presidential election of 2012, which, however imperfect the process that begot his victory, was definitive – the illegitimacy of the presidential election should perhaps not be overemphasized. Third, history’s taste for surprises and even miracles has been well documented, although an election outcome that is not favorable to Putin will require a miracle of truly biblical dimensions.

Finally, Russia counts – perhaps less than Putin’s most ardent supporters claim that it does, but more than his critics would have us believe. As I’ve always maintained, Russia is a country riven by an identity crisis. This is not the place to expound the etiology of that crisis; at this juncture, it will suffice to say that ever since Peter the Great modernized Russia, which had hitherto been an Asiatic land, Russia has been a battleground between two competing identities: one a European and the other one Asian. In tsarist Russia, the European part ruled the country: the country’s elites were either drawn from Europe or were heavily Europeanized; the base, however, remained Asian. This rift between Russia’s haves and have-nots was reflected in the debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles, which, in a mutated form, still lives on.

The unresolved identity crisis is at the heart of some of Russia’s biggest problems today and might at least in part explain some of Russian’s historic events (the Russian Revolution, for example, can certainly be viewed as a revolt against the European elites). The resolution of this crisis – or the lack of one – will therefore have considerable ramifications for the European continent. Who governs Russia is a question that goes beyond mere academic interest; and a quick look at those who want to govern the world’s largest country by territory in the near term is consequently in order.

Dramatis personae:

Vladimir Putin – the eternal president

The only candidate truly in no need of any introduction – to anyone. To his supporters, he’s a unifier of Russian lands, the avenger of Russia’s honour, the architect of its reawakening. To his detractors, he’s the leader of a mafia state, the author of a renewed Russian imperialism, and perhaps a war criminal. The truth, as they say, is probably somewhere in between, though “in between” is not necessarily a neatly demarcated middle ground. There is no question that, by the end of Putin’s second presidential term, a kind of stability had been restored in Russia, which was a welcome change from the chaotic Yeltsin years. But the annexation of Crimea in 2014 changed everything; and the Russia of today, even if it has once again become a player to contend with in the international arena, is a country characterized by breathtaking corruption levels, a state-run ideology inflamed by hidebound conservatism and jingoism, and an exceedingly uncertain future.

Every observer of contemporary Russia knows that the Putin of today is not the Putin of, say, 2005. His reign before 2014 was characterized by a return to stability, dirigisme, and the emergence of the kind of system that is usually referred to as a “managed democracy”. Something of an unwritten pact had been adopted between the Kremlin and society: society did not meddle in the business of governing, while the Kremlin, for the most, allowed people to go about their business as they saw fit. A middle class seemed to be emerging, at least in the country’s larger cities. Buffeted by rising oil prices, Russia appeared to be moving towards normalcy.

Then something happened. Few know what. The thing about Russian politics is that it’s so opaque that few ever know the whole truth, perhaps no one at all – not even Putin. What we do know, factually speaking, is that a wave of protests broke out in the Russian capital in late 2011, one of the largest of their kind in the history of post-Soviet Russia. A presidential election was looming. As is the case with the election due to take place next month, Putin was the main contender; unlike the upcoming election, at the time Putin was prime minister, having demoted himself to comply with a law that forbids a president to serve more than two consecutive presidential terms (those formalities again). Putin was gearing up to cruise back to the presidency, which, for the past four years, had been looked after by Dmitry Medvedev, who had proved himself to be a trustworthy custodian and was now in turn gearing up to be downgraded to premiership. The protests were a reaction to the cynicism that many protesters saw in the swap of power due to take place. The opposition – real opposition, as opposed to the “loyal opposition” that had provided a symbolic alternative to Putin in the years before – showed signs of life; and it demanded change.

In political terms, the protests were not a threat to Putin. The protesters were too few in number; the protests seemed to be a large-city phenomenon. Yet Putin, who is said to be an avid student of history, is likely well acquainted with the influence that “active minorities” sometimes have on historic events. It must also have been rather disconcerting to see some of the elites participating in the protests. And we have seen how quickly a seasoned authoritarian regime can fold in the age of social media and instant communication. It is quite possible that, bluntly speaking, Putin might have been spooked.

Additionally, there was the question of ideology. Putin had been in power for more than a decade. Whatever the accomplishments of his administration, there was a feeling that the ideological component of his regime was, in financial parlance, underfunded. There was little that could be used to underwrite a Putin legacy or write history textbooks. An idea was needed, an idea that could reinvigorate the Putin era, stifle the nascent opposition, and ensure the durability of his regime, which, in the final analysis, is the primary objective of any ruler.

A new ideology was needed, but its mere articulation to the public would have been unlikely to succeed. The new ideology had to be brokered by a historic event. The annexation of Crimea was that historic event. As far as political and historical symbols go, Crimea is quite up there; and, in the short term, its takeover provided a massive political windfall for Putin.

Putin’s approval ratings went through the stratosphere (said to have been hovering between 80% and 90%, they are a wet dream for many a political leader in the West), the opposition was disoriented (opposition to the annexation – which was billed by Putin as a rescue operation to save ethnic Russians from the excesses, exaggerated or otherwise, of Ukraine’s nationalism – was perceived by many in Russia as treason, Russophobia, or both), and Putin’s Russia could now claim to have a national idea – a strong Russia pursuing its own sovereign path, guided along by road signs erected by the Russian Orthodox Church, moving towards a glorious future that was to be a healthy alternative to the decay and decadence of the West.

Having endured years of humiliation on the outskirts of global political decision-making, Russia had regained its status and was now a force to be reckoned with – a significant accomplishment in a country where domestically inspired intimations of millenarianism have existed for a long time. It is perhaps only a mild exaggeration to say that, had Putin proposed a referendum on restoring the monarchy in Russia – with Putin on the throne – he might have had a decent chance.

In the long run, there is far less room for optimism. Relations with the West have been tense, to say the least, and Russia has faced (or has been forced to face, depending on your point of view) international isolation. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized, the benefits of remaining a geopolitical island are questionable. The Russian economy is largely reliant on its natural resources, and its future prospects are highly uncertain. Corruption is endemic at all levels of society, and the politicization of the economy makes doing business in Russia a risky prospect – hardly a healthy environment for an economy to thrive.

More disturbing is the internal situation. Many point to a climate of extreme intolerance and aggression. While Putin’s regime certainly lends itself to all sorts of exaggerations and misconceptions that can be easily fed to naive audiences in the West, there’s no question that those with dissenting views have not had it easy in Russia. The pressure on public figures to endorse the Kremlin’s agenda has been palpable. Prominent opponents of the annexation have been labeled “Russophobes”, traitors, and a “fifth column” – terminology that is reminiscent of some of the darker chapters in European history. Performers who have taken a stand against the annexation of Crimea have run into problems finding venues where to please their fans. Journalists and writers with opinions that are not Kremlin-friendly have been attacked in the streets with an antiseptic known as “brilliant green” or worse (a journalist from Echo Moscow was doused with feces). In some cases they were murdered outright – Boris Nemtsov, a former politician and an implacable critic of the annexation of Crimea, was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin three years ago.

Naturally, one cannot blame Putin directly for these incidents; but he is the man who has spawned the society in which this sort of thing can – and does – happen. In a way, he has unleashed some of the darker forces and reawakened some of the darker demons slumbering in the lairs of Russian history.

His policies can be said to have contributed to the development of other phenomena – it was on his watch that the Russian Orthodox Church has acquired its momentum. The church has experienced a major revival since the collapse of the former Soviet Union – perhaps an inevitability in a country whose dominant ideology is in ruins.

In recent years, however, the revival has taken on hues and overtones that are bound to raise red flags for advocates of secularism. There seems to have been fusion between church and state (in Russia, this has traditionally redounded to the state’s benefit). The church has weighed in on many issues of the day, sometimes adopting positions that bordered on obscurantism and occasionally adding a medieval touch to public discourse. A few years ago, a man was tried in the city of Stavropol. He was accused of having offended the feelings of the religious by posting online messages that denied the existence of God. The case was dismissed last year, but the fact that the case had made it to court in the first place shows the drift of Russian society.

The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church is a curious development in a country where atheism had been a state ideology for nearly three generations in the 20th century. But in Putin’s Russia contradictions abound. Nicholas II, arguably one of Russia’s weakest Romanov tsars, was elevated to sainthood by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin himself is rumoured to have his own confessor; in any case, he has not been shy about assuring his own religious fervour. One can only guess at the sort of moral accounting that it makes it possible to reconcile a KGB past with a Russian Orthodox present. Yet Bolshevik symbols or figures antithetical to the very idea of religion – persecutors of the church par excellence – remain hugely popular in Russia. Stalin, for example, is routinely rated as one of greatest men in world history by Russians – greatness, in this context, has a positive connotation.

Tragically, the annexation of Crimea has also sown internal discord between two closely related ethnic groups. As a result of the many instances of intermarriage between Russians and Ukrainians, the conflict has created fault lines in individual families. Permanent scars, never-ending conflicts, internecine battles – a low point for humanity. A decade ago, the suggestion that Russians could go to war against Ukrainians would have been laughable. Today it’s the reality.

Putin and his acolytes maintain that the annexation of the Crimea and everything that has followed since have been defensive measures. The enemy is Ukrainian nationalism, financed by an anti-Russian West. However paranoid or incoherent some of the claims might be, though, it certainly takes two to tango, as they say. The demonization of Vladimir Putin has been a fetish in the West; and the view that many in the West have of Putin and Putin’s Russia is often one-sided – and, one might well add, lop-sided. One might admire Vladimir Putin; equally, one might resent him. Some of the grievances expressed by the Russian president are no less legitimate for it.

Putin is as right to complain about continuous NATO expansion – perceived by Russians as encroachment on Russian interests, not an unjustified sentiment, if one recalls that the original aim of NATO was to contain Russia – as he is right to complain about the double standards that make it acceptable for, say, the US to circumscribe Russia’s interests within its sphere of influence, while showing little openness to Russia (and other powers) flexing its muscles in America’s own backyard.

Putin is also right to assert Russia’s prerogative to have its own system of values (e.g., family values) that should not be scrutinized and judged by a politically correct, ultraliberal West; and he is just as right to deride what he sees as the West’s hypocrisy. Russia had more reasons to annex Crimea, where most of the population is Russian, than the US to invade Iraq in 2003, where it was to look for weapons of mass destruction that were not there to begin with; and if one evil does not justify another, the US administration responsible for the war in Iraq has not been taken to task, and the US has not been subjected to penalties or economic sanctions.

The economic sanctions imposed against Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea also raise a number of questions. What is the point of these economic sanctions? As the examples of Myanmar, Cuba and Iraq have shown, economic sanctions are usually hard on ordinary people and toothless when it comes to the regimes they’re meant to discipline. Presumably, the goal of economic sanctions is to exert pressure on the people to get rid of a troublesome regime. However, there is a contradiction here. For years Putin has been branded as an authoritarian regime (or worse). If that is true, vox populi should be voiceless in Russia, which renders the economic sanctions all but useless. If, on the other hand, the Russian people can get rid of Putin, then the public has a voice and a say in the way the country is run, in which case Russia is not quite the authoritarian state that we’ve been led to believe it is. If, lastly, the goal of the sanctions is to get Russians to topple Putin at any cost (even that of bloodshed), then they are just cruel.

Putin is right on a number of points, and the kind of systematic maligning of Putin that goes on in the West can be unfair. Yet however valid some of Putin’s assertions happen to be, the way Putin and his regime have gone about convincing the unconvinced has done much to discredit their truth. Those who truly speak the truth, as Putin claims to be doing, rarely feel the need to punish those who are in disagreement. Truth speaks for itself. It is promoted by constructive suasion, not imposed by force or censorship. This point seems to be lost on many of Putin’s supporters. I wonder if the point hasn’t been lost on Putin himself.

This, then, is the man who looks set to preside over Russia for a fourth time. Barring a deus ex machina, his opponents virtually don’t stand a chance. Some supporters of Putin argue that there’s no one in the opposition who can measure up to Putin when it comes to administrative experience and political acumen. That is at best a half-truth; and half-truths are dangerous. Deification of political leaders is rarely a good idea; and if Russia’s opposition lacks a serious and viable alternative to Putin (a big if), it is in no small measure due to the continued efforts of the Putin regime to turn the opposition into a barren land. The opposition does exist in Russia, and its voice deserves to be heard.

Alexei Navalny – the candidate who isn’t

Arguably the most prominent figure of the opposition, Alexei Navalny has one considerable problem: he’s been barred from running in the elections, ostensibly due to a prior conviction that, he and his allies maintain, was politically motivated. Photogenic and a lawyer by training, Navalny has made a name for himself with, among other things, his tussles with Russia’s legal system and with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an NGO that investigates corruption at the highest levels of the government. The NGO has already broken a number of big stories; the latest one to hit the international news involves an oligarch who has allegedly entertained a high-ranking civil servant in the company of prostitutes on a yacht off the coast of Noway. It is impossible for an outsider to verify the veracity of the information that Navalny and his team consistently supply for the public’s benefit (one can only marvel at how they manage to obtain this sort of data), but even if only part of it is true, it is still powerful stuff and is a searing indictment of Putin’s regime.

Navalny has been portrayed in the Western media as Russia’s beacon of democracy. As it is, for many in the West, any serious opponent of Putin is automatically perceived to be a paragon of democracy. In other words, the exact political coordinates of the individual are unimportant; what’s important is that he’s against Putin, as if being against Putin is synonymous with being a certified Western-style democrat – a ridiculous, if not dangerous, illusion. This is a point made by those critics of Navalny who point to his past flirtations with Russia’s far right (one UK-based Russian writer, a quondam supporter, turned away from Navalny due the latter’s sympathy for a nationalist march). The extent of these flirtations and the depth of Navalny’s nationalism, however, are unclear.

The criticism that Navalny does not have “relevant experience” is strange: by that logic, only a former president can run for president, which will disqualify anyone who has never been president, a logical cul-de-sac. Sometimes people ought to be given a chance. A bigger problem with Navalny is not the question of experience, but that of stature. Though Navalny is certainly not unintelligent, charisma – the kind of charisma one expects in a politician – seems to be in short supply. He has also proven to be rather ineffectual during various debates. Finally, while impressions are highly subjective and often superficial, there is an element of smallness about the man. Watching and listening to Navalny, it is hard to get rid of the feeling that one is dealing with an ordinary mortgage specialist or an insurance agent. There’s certainly nothing wrong with mortgage specialists and insurance agents, ordinary or otherwise, but this is not the sort of thing one wants to see in a man aspiring to run a country as complex as Russia.

Unlike Putin, who is a product of the Soviet system, the USSR had ceased to exist by the time Navalny attained the age of majority. This is an asset; and he certainly does inject a breath of fresh air into Russian politics. His desire to eradicate corruption, mend fences with the West, and modernize Russia are commendable. Is he the man to do it, though? No one knows for sure. But it’s hard to take seriously those who claim that his candidature isn’t serious. To determine who presents a real risk to Putin and his regime, one only needs to know which candidate was declared ineligible to participate in the elections. To that end, Navalny’s exclusion speaks volumes.

Ksenia Sobchak – a candidate against all

The only female candidate in the election, Ksenia Sobchak’s path to a presidential candidate is a remarkable one. The daughter of the first mayor of post-Soviet Saint Petersburg, her early life as a prominent (and rather scandal-prone) member of Russia’s jeunesse dorée did not augur well for a career in politics. Nevertheless, Sobchak managed to graduate from Russia’s “It Girl” to journalism and, later, to political activism, which culminated in the announcement late last year that she’d be participating in the presidential election as a “candidate against all”.

The thing about political programs, particularly with candidates in countries where things are fluid and quick to change, is that they are often not worth the paper they’re written on. However, if a political platform provides few indications of what the candidate will do once (and if) he’s in power, it is usually a good guide to the candidate’s political orientation. The first point in Sobchak’s 123-step program, then, is telling. Right from the get-go, Sobchak declares her desire to build a new Russia based on a European-style secular democracy, with human rights as the main pillar of Russian society. In case anyone missed the point, she adds that Russia is geographically, historically, and culturally a European nation; and its fate is therefore a necessarily European one.

Given the cool relations between Russia and Europe, and the distaste that many Russians feel for the ultraliberalism of the West, this is a strong declaration. It is also an encouraging one – certainly for this ardent believer in a European Russia and in the primacy of Russia’s European identity. But its strength is also its weakness. It is easy enough for Sobchak and her allies to identify themselves as Europeans, but Russia is a multicivilizational country. Will the Chechens and Tatars – both groups are Muslim – embrace a European identity? For Russia’s non-Europeans it is bound to be a tough sell. This is before we get to the question of implementation. Sobchak’s entire platform is quaint, herbivorous even; but it’s hard to see how it will all come together in the Russia of today. It is even harder to see how Ksenia Sobchak might be the best person to try and make it all come together. Not to mention that modern ultraliberal Europe, which serves as the inspiration for Sobchak’s platform, may not be the best model to copy at the moment.

Some claim that her candidacy was orchestrated by the Kremlin in order to siphon votes from Navalny’s electorate, which is paralyzed by his exclusion, and further split the Navalny camp, as well as to prop up the illusion that the presidential election is a legitimate exercise in democracy. It’s impossible to say whether there’s any truth to that – we might never find out. But there are other questions pertaining to her candidacy that are no less pertinent. It is worthwhile asking whether, culturally and socially, Russia is ready for a female leader – while Russia did have women at the helm, Sobchak is no Catherine the Great. It is also unclear whether Russians voters will be able to divorce the Ksenia Sobchak of today from the glamorous (and often vulgar) Ksenia Sobchak of her not-too-distant youth.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Ksenia Sobchak, for all her anti-Kremlin activism, is firmly entrenched in the establishment. Putin was the right hand of Sobchak’s father when the latter was mayor of Saint Petersburg. Rumours have even circulated that Putin is Sobchak’s godfather – this might well be untrue, but the existence of such rumours points to the links that Ksenia Sobchak had with the president she’s opposing today. Running on the slogan of a “candidate against all”, Sobchak has tried to position herself as an anti-establishment figure; it is unclear how many voters will find the stance convincing. If the polls are to be believed, not that many: Ksenia Sobchak is unlikely to take more than 1%-3% of the vote.

Pavel Grudinin – Lenin in the age of iPhones

Pavel Grudinin is a new face – the upcoming presidential election is his first. He became the leader of the Communist Party last year, replacing Gennady Zyuganov, who, like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (see below), had been in politics long enough to be considered as Putin’s loyal opposition, but who, unlike Zhirinovsky, had finally decided that it was time to cede his place to someone else. As with Ksenia Sobchak, there has been talk in some quarters that Grudinin is a creature produced by the Kremlin workshop. Whether true or not, Grudinin tries his best to sell vintage communism to the public. In one interview, he had no qualms about whitewashing Stalin’s reign; what most historians view as oppression and crimes against humanity is, in Grudinin’s analysis, “firmness”. Such paeans to the Soviet dictator from the lushly moustached Grudinin will make many uneasy, but there is hardly any need to lay too much stress on this. Reviewing the party’s program is a journey back in time; there’s something ineffably anachronistic about the party’s supreme plan for Russia. Perhaps Grudinin does not quite believe it himself: a well-off individual, he has been forced to respond to questions concerning, among other things, a villa in Spain, which apparently belongs not to him, but to his son. There’s nothing wrong with sons owning villas in Spain, of course, but it’s probably not what Lenin and Trotsky had in mind.

According to polls, Grudinin may come in second.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky – the show must go on

The leader of the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) for as long as the party’s existed, Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the bombastic, crafty and often vulgar face of Russia’s far right. He is well known for his outlandish proposals (he has, for example, expressed his support for legalizing polygamy) as well as for his crude humour. Occasionally, the humour can be rather rich. Russia’s extreme right has traditionally been hostile to Jews; yet asked about his ethnic origin years ago, Zhirinovsky said his mother was Russian, while his father was a lawyer, leaving little doubt as to his father’s real origins and not a little material for psychologists to study.

Zhirinovsky and his party appeared to be a political force back in the 1990s, when Zhirinovsky was considered a serious contender for the Kremlin. In recent years, however, the party has been part of Putin’s loyal opposition, where being the opposition is not a political crusade but a lucrative career. Zhirinovsky (and, until he stepped down, the communist leader Zyuganov) is a sign of Russia’s torpid political ecosystem, in which a man who’s been a party leader and a presidential candidate for a quarter of a century is still both of those things.

Zhirinovsky would be called an archetypal populist in the West, but he’s more a showman and an entertainer than a politician. The worldview and ideology of his party enjoy support among segments of Russian society (as in the West, the level of that support waxes and wanes with Russia’s fortunes), but today it is hard to see Zhirinovsky as anything other than a spent political force. To the extent that it is a one-man show, the same can be said about his party.

Grigory Yavlinsky – an apple a day won’t keep Putin away

The leader of Yabloko (Russian for “apple”), Yavlinsky brings to the elections a vision that, with its strong pacifist bent, should appear to most members of the traditional Russian intelligentsia. In many ways it overlaps with Sobchak’s platform. However, for any observer of Russian politics who was old enough to observe it in the 1990s, it will be hard to regard Yavlinsky, who was very active at the time, as something more than a has-been or an also-ran.

Dreams of European Russia

Aside from the personalities mentioned above, there are a few more individuals running for president; omitting their names, however, should not leave the reader unduly shortchanged. Presidential elections in Russia are based on a two-round system whereby the top two candidates face off in a second round of elections if no single candidate secures an absolute majority. At this point, the first round should be sufficient to ratify Putin’s fourth presidential term.

Russia, though, is much more than Putin – or any other man who’s ever governed it. Russia has outlived all of its tsars and dictators; barring some apocalyptic disaster, it will outlive Putin, too. The big question is not the destiny of Putin, but that of Russia – specifically, for this author, the destiny of European Russia. Russia’s contributions to Western civilization since the 18th century are immense and, for anyone familiar with European history, require no further commentary. None of the masterpieces and great works produced by Russia during that time would have been possible without European Russia. Even those who attacked European Russia – the Slavophiles, for example – typically did so with European tools. The double-headed eagle serving as Russia’s coat of arms might find it expedient to turn both heads towards the West.

But who can inspire the eagle do so? Putin once spoke of his vision of a eurozone stretching from Lisbon all the way to Vladivostok. Should his next term resemble the ones that have preceded it, this will remain but a dream. To be fair, advancing the Europeanness of Russia has always been an uphill battle in that country. Pro-European Russians have traditionally been associated with liberalism; and, as Chaadaev wrote, a Russian liberal is like gnat beating about senselessly in a sunbeam, of which the sun is the sun of the West. Chaadaev came to a sorry end: reprimanded and chastised by the tsarist regime, he was officially declared a madman, his Western sun remaining nothing but a hazy hyperborean smudge. Things might be no more sunny today. Yet if Russia had a Peter the Great to create a “window on the West”, is it naive to hope for another Peter the Great to enlarge that window? No one knows. One thing is clear, though: if such a Peter the Great exists, for any European Russian he can’t come soon enough.