Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Catching up: Cute Knut, Europe's birthday and Sharia on the Main

If you've had the sense that things have gotten a bit slow around here (with regard to the amount of posting) then you'd be right. This awareness would also mean that you are what we might call a 'regular reader', and, as such, I thank you not only for your good taste but also for your perseverance.

The relative dry spell is partly to do with the amount of travelling around we've been doing recently. In the last month or so, we've been in the US, Greece and, last weekend, the Netherlands. As I mentioned, I'm not really that good at firing off quick insights spontaneously from some internet café somewhere. Others can do that well. Not me.

No: my insights, such as they are, require hard work, a comfy chair and a large pot of green tea.

But my online word-mill has also been grinding somewhat more slowly due to my efforts to make some headway in the work I have to do in the real world (or, let's say, the world in which I do work for which I get paid).

Which, I'm happy to say, has been going well. My contribution to the upcoming Ballard conference (which looks like it'll be fascinating...programme and new information can be found here) now at least has a beginning, middle and an end (which certainly makes things better for the audience). Crucially, it also seems to be roughly within the required length. (If you're a regular reader, you will also be aware that I do suffer from a bad case of chronic verbosity.)

Getting so far with the paper is important, as it is at this stage with conference papers that I begin to cease panicking. And, to be honest, I think the paper itself might not be so bad. We'll have to see. With any luck it may see the light of publication someday.

I've also been trying to make some serious progress on the main project I'm researching, about which, now, I plan a book. More on that as it develops. But, just by means of explanation, I've been busy.

Obviously, however, there have been a lot of events and debates which have touched on some of the long-term interests here at Obscene Desserts (nature, Europe, multiculturalism) so I didn't want to let them slide by without at least a few words...

...at least with regard to those stories that have made it seem Germany was the centre of the universe over the last week or so.

Cute Knut

First, our household has of course been in the grips of a veritable Eisbär-mania since the story of Knut broke a few weeks ago. Undoubtedly you've heard of the the world's most famous Ursus maritimus, who, rejected by his mother, has been raised by a dedicated (if somewhat hirsute) ersatz-parent.

Now, the story of Knut's abandonment by his mother is, on its own, thoroughly heart-string-tugging (and I'm surprised that Eva Hermann hasn't rushed in to give that heartless career-bitch the dressing down she deserves), as was the decision by one of his keepers to take over parental duties.

But if that wasn't enough, there was a debate about whether he should be put to sleep. A few people based this argument on the ground that bottle feeding was not 'appropriate to his species', which, to be honest, I couldn't quite follow. (Bottle feeding is illegitimate because it's not species-typical...lethal injection, on the other hand, is an ancient polar-bear custom?)

What is somewhat irksome, though, is that during this discussion it was sometimes simply claimed that 'animal rights activists' wanted Knut put down. This gave the impression that this was some kind of broad environmentalist consensus. The resulting firestorm of protest made clear that this was not so. In the end, it seems, Knut will live. And that makes us here very happy.

Because we get to look at pictures like these. And watch videos like this. Which we do. Just about every day.

Considering the attention (and extra income) he's brought to the Berlin Zoo, I don't think anyone should be too concerned about the way he's going to be treated. Moreover, he has managed to make some friends in high places, including the German environment minister.

And, I see, he's also gotten some coverage in Britain. Perhaps, along with bringing attention to climate change he might thus also be able to ensure that when British children think of Germany, they think 'cute and cuddly' rather than 'Nazi and scary'. (Though he's probably got as much chance of doing that as stopping climate change.)

I have to say, however, that I hope the interest in Knut--as well as in the grim situation facing his counterparts in the wild--outlasts the 'Cute Knut' period.

As is true for all of us, he's not going to be small and adorable forever.

I also fear that an anti-Knut backlash is probably inevitable. Perhaps it will come from parents, driven mad by their childrens' new polar-bear obsession. (To which, I have to say, at least it chips away at the little beasts' Harry Potter obsession.) Perhaps it will come from those who will argue that it is somehow inappropriate to give all this attention to a little bear when so much of the world is going to hell.

I can understand that argument. On the other hand, I think it may be because of the latter that a simple story such as this one has had such appeal.

Happy Birthday, EU

It was remarked in the German media that the attention given to Knut managed to overshadow the signing of the Berlin Declaration by representatives of the 27 nations of the European Union. This is unfortunate (though I don't blame Knut himself, of course) since I think that the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome (which then formed the EEC, the precursor to the EU) is something to celebrate.

This needs a much longer discussion--which I shouldn't simply jam into an already long post about a baby polar bear--but suffice to say that I am a great admirer of what Jeremy Rifkin once formulated as the 'European dream'.

Precisely what that means is something open to debate and discussion and some contemplation. But I think the declaration (available in all European languages here) is not a bad start.

This is not the place--for the moment--to go into all the shortcomings of European politics and Brussels bureaucracy. There are many of those, and like any great admirer of anything, I've learned that the object of one's affections can sometimes seriously disappoint.

But what disappoints me even more are two things.

First, it seems to me that the current peace which Europe enjoys is too often taken for granted, hence, the importance of a strong and reformed EU in maintaining that happy situation is too-often overlooked.

Second, there is a very odd discussion around the idea of an EU constitution which seems to have little to do with the document itself. Some years ago, I indulged in a rather ill-tempered presentation of my perspective on some of the ways that Europe is viewed. (The ill temper, I maintain, was fully justified at the time.)

More recently, another version of kneejerk Europhobia was brought home to me in Crete, though not by the Cretans. In the midst of a (very tasty) dinner, the topic of Angela Merkel's popularity in Britain came up. Worriedly, it was observed (by a Brit) that, 'She's trying to revive the constitution', something that may negatively affect her standing in Britain.

Now, it is certainly true, in fact, that Merkel has made getting this process under way a priority of Germany's six-month presidency of the European Council. The Berlin Declaration was part of this.

However, the comment in question was said in an uneasy tone and with an anxious expression that would be more appropriate had it been, 'She's trying to foment anarchy, destroy our cities and poison our children.'

There are reasonable areas to debate in the constitution as it was proposed, of course, but I suspect that our companion's reaction to it had little to do with an informed opinion about the principle of subsidiarity.

Not, of course, that this kind of attitude can all be blamed on the British. It was the French and the Dutch, after all, who rejected the constitution. However, interestingly enough, at least a significant portion of those who voted against it (and this is something that many sneering critics of the EU overlook) did so because they wanted rather more of the social model than --they thought--they were getting.

A travesty of Justice? Ja. A reason to panic? Nein.

Finally, there was a story from not too far down the road in Frankfurt, where a judge refused a woman's request for an accelerated divorce proceeding at least in part based on her (the judge's) reading of the Koran. The woman, who had been abused and claims to have been receiving death threats from her hopefully soon-to-be-ex spouse, had sought to evade the normal requirement of a one-year separation before a divorce is granted on the basis of her treatment.

However...things took a surprising (and disturbing) turn (via Spiegel International):

The judge rejected the application for a speedy divorce by referring to a passage in the Koran that some have controversially interpreted to mean that a husband can beat his wife. It's a supposed right which is the subject of intense debate among Muslim scholars and clerics alike."The exercise of the right to castigate does not fulfill the hardship criteria as defined by Paragraph 1565 (of German federal law)," the daily Frankfurter Rundschau quoted the judge's letter as saying. It must be taken into account, the judge argued, that both man and wife have Moroccan backgrounds.

This story, justifiably, caused a storm of outrage across pretty much all of German society. And that's a good thing, as this was an outrageous decision.

However, listening to some of the media commentary and sampling blog commentary, I became more than a little uncomfortable about how the story was being used. For many, the incident seemed in one way or another to be just the latest sign in the Islamification of Europe, allowing some commentators (generally right-wing and generally hostile to Europe in any case) to dig out their favourite term, 'Eurabia'.

Now, I'm as convinced that this was a foolish and unjust decision as anyone. However, what it signals is, I think, far from clear.

There have been some who have claimed that such mistaken decisions are a widespread problem, and I'm sure that the observation that this was not an 'Einzelfall' (unique case) is probably correct.

However, I was listening to legal experts (professors of law from somewhere...sorry, I can't now recall where) on the radio last week who were commenting on the case. They made a couple of good points.

First, the practice of taking 'cultural background' into account in legal proceedings is neither something new nor did it emerge specifically in regard to Muslims. It was, instead, suggested that such considerations entered German courts decades ago mainly in response to cases involving southern European men who, let's just say, brought with them a different notion of when and where violence was legitimate, and who were killing each other as a result of some version of a culture of 'vendetta' or because of slights against their 'honour'. The courts, in facing these cases, took into account 'cultural background' as a mitigating factor in sentencing for those perpetrators who had been socialised from childhood into a particular macho subculture.

Now, this may or may not make sense from a legal, moral or policy perspective. But, it would seem to be correct--if my source was accurate--that the origins of the legal principle in question lie less in a cowardly caving into Muslims than in a much longer history of cultural-legal interaction that began, fundamentally, an inner-European problem.

Moreover, as even the original Spiegel article notes, the practice of treating cultural background as a mitigating factor in domestic abuse cases has been declining and has even become 'seldom' in recent years. This, too, was the view of the legal experts I heard on the radio.

Clearly, taking 'cultural background' of whatever sort into account in a court is a problematic principle. But is it fully inappropriate? I'm not sure. Courts, after all, accept a wide variety of mitigating and aggravating factors. And they have for a very long time. (In my book, I examined (among other things) ritual fistfighting among working-class men in England in the nineteenth century. The courts, in evaluating those cases, paid very close attention to whether the men involved had followed 'customary' rules in beating each other to a pulp.)

My point is merely this. There is a great deal of anger over this case, which I share. There is also, it seems, a use being made of this case which I think should be considered carefully. Is this evidence of the accelerating 'Islamification' of Europe (as the screaming 'Sharia in Frankfurt' headlines would lead us to expect)? Or, as a more sober look at this case suggests, does it seem more to be a sorry example of a declining (though misguided and still too common) willingness to allow cloudy cultural thinking to dilute clear legal principles?

As the recent sign and sight multiculturalism debate suggested, it's difficult to have a reasonable discussion about these things. There's a lot of stupidity, too, to go around, and this applies to all political persuasions. As I tried to suggest, though, I think a little differentiation in thinking and careful examination of the evidence in practice, might help.

There are times, though, that I think that reasoned discussion might be as endangered a species as the polar bears.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Europe :)liked ur post...quite well-composed!