The Idea of Europe Must Catch Up with Reality

By Mishra, Pankaj | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Idea of Europe Must Catch Up with Reality


Mishra, Pankaj, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Recently, against the sound of dominoes falling across the eurozone, I participated in a BBC radio discussion about the "Idea of Europe."

Specifically, could the notion of the continent as the home of democracy and reason survive the economic crises convulsing one country after another?

Oddly, my fellow participants, including Slavoj Zizek, who identified himself as a "radical leftist," seemed to assume the existence of one "idea" of Europe -- as distinct from many ideas of Europe that include, in Asian eyes at least, imperialism as well as liberal democracy, racial and religious intolerance as well as individual liberties.

For what we think of Europe is shaped by our particular historical and political circumstances. The Indian economist Amartya Sen, among others, has argued convincingly for traditions of democracy and reason in non-Western societies.

The idea of Europe is periodically revised within the continent itself. Wishing to pin down Muslims as Europe's unassimilable "other," the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy claimed that France's roots were "essentially Christian" -- as close to blasphemy as you can get in a country that purports to be the product of the secular Enlightenment.

Walking through the palaces and gardens of the Alhambra a few days after the BBC discussion, I marveled at the thoroughness with which a Europe determined to identify itself as Christian had expunged the long centuries of Islam from its past.

Spain's greatest modern thinkers, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, presented Islam as an unfortunate irruption in the history of Europe, vigorously denying any Arab contributions to European culture.

This decontaminated idea of European culture barely existed before the invention of modern historiography in the 19th century; there was Christendom, but no Europe. It was the scholarly discovery of the classical past -- Athens and Greece -- combined with the political and philosophical breakthroughs of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that first made Europe appear the originator of such virtues as modern democracy and scientific rationality.

The expansion of Spanish and Portuguese, and then British, French and Dutch empires across Asia, Africa and Latin America seemed to attest European claims to moral, intellectual and political pre- eminence.

Such self-perceptions did not survive Europe's fratricidal 20th century. Liberal democracy was under stress in Europe for much of the century's first half; the mechanized slaughter of an extraordinarily gifted and fruitful minority made scientific rationality itself seem dubious.

By diminishing Europe's power, the two wars also destroyed its claims to moral leadership. That role passed, along with many thankless imperial duties, to the United States.

The Mexican poet and thinker Octavio Paz could write in the late 1940s, "Europe, once a storehouse of ready-to-use ideas, now lives as we do, from day to day. Strictly speaking, the modern world no longer possesses any ideas."

Jean-Paul Sartre was harsher. Europe, he claimed, "is springing leaks everywhere. What then has happened? It is simply that in the past we made history and now it is being made of us."

Unknown to Paz and Sartre, Europe, assisted by the U.S., was embarking upon a remarkable period of political and socioeconomic reconstruction.

To be sure, the idea of Europe we talk about so confidently, as the guarantor of individual liberty, is a post-World War II construct. It is an ideological notion, outlined vis-a-vis the "free" world's common enemy in the Cold War, totalitarian communism.

Nevertheless, it has a great deal of truth in it. Spain and Portugal were far from democracy and closer to Third World despotisms until the 1970s. Parts of rural Italy, Spain and Portugal actually looked like the Third World. …

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