Europe's Barbarous 'Other'?
I'm teaching a history course in the Division of International Studies this semester on cultural diversity and the politics of European integration . . . or something like that. I can't quite recall the title that I came up with (which is why I've left the words uncapitalized here). Despite my flawed memory, the course is working out fairly well, I think. This week, we're reading on European identity, and we discussed an article yesterday by Timothy Garton Ash, "Europe's true stories" (Prospect Magazine, February 2007, Nr. 131), in which he attempts to identify six strands being woven together to form the fabric of a new European identity: "The strands are freedom, peace, law, prosperity, diversity and solidarity." By these six, if I might summarize, he means liberal democracy, conflict resolution by negotiation, legal protection of human rights, market economy generating wealth, moderate European multiculturalism, and social welfare. There's more to say in characterizing these, but Ash does it better than I can, so go to his article, linked to above (or if that requires registration, go here).
Ash doesn't just focus on the positive, however, for he proposes something negative as well, an 'other' that must be resisted and against which Europe must define itself, but not in the way that this has been done before:
Nor should our sense of European togetherness be achieved by the negative stereotyping of an enemy or "other" (in the jargon of identity studies), as Britishness, for example, was constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries by contrast with a stereotyped France. After the collapse of the Soviet communist "east," against which western Europe defined itself from the late 1940s until 1989, some politicians and intellectuals now attempt to find Europe's "other" in either the US or Islam. These attempts are foolish and self-defeating. They divide Europeans rather than uniting them. Both the negative stereotyping of others and the mythmaking about our own collective past are typical of what I call Euronationalism -- an attempt to replicate nationalist methods of building political identity at the European level.This is an interesting concept, an 'other' against whom one defines one's identity can be one's own barbarous past. The idea reminds me, in a sense, of Rémi Brague's remark that the good 'Roman' -- by which, he means the good European -- must remain aware of a barbarism within himself that must be subdued (Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine's Press, 2002, page 39). The difference, though, is that Brague doesn't call this barbarism in oneself an "other." For Brague, the "other" would be the extrinsic, Greek and Jewish cultures that Europe has borrowed for its own eccentric identity, an "other" thus to be identified with rather than against. I'd be curious what Ash makes of Brague, but I don't suppose he'll post any comment here to clarify his views.
In this proposal, Europe's only defining "other" is its own previous self: more specifically, the unhappy, self-destructive, at times downright barbaric chapters in the history of European civilisation. With the wars of the Yugoslav succession and the attempted genocide in Kosovo, that unhappy history stretches into the very last year of the last century. This is no distant past. Historical knowledge and consciousness play a vital role here, but it must be honest history, showing all the wrinkles, and not mythistoire.
Brague, by the way, also discusses Islam in his book. I don't believe that he calls it an "other," but he does see it as a rival civilization and clearly prefers the West. My class will be discussing Brague's views tomorrow, along with eight other conceptions of European identity, borrowed from Gerard Delanty's discussion in "Conceptions of Europe: A Review of Recent Trends" (European Journal of Social Theory, 6(4), 2003, 471-488), a hard article for freshmen, but I have the students preparing in groups, so the discussion will probably turn out okay.