Thursday, March 15, 2007

Unions: From the Soviet to the European

I just finished watching the VTR recording I made of George Will interviewing John Patrick Diggins about the latter's new book, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History. At one point Diggins made an interesting remark to the effect that Reagan knew the Soviet Union would fail because of all the alcoholism he saw on the street. This provided an interesting context for reading the "EU at 50" article that Paul Taylor wrote for Reuters. Here are the lead paragraphs with the key message:

Even though it turns 50 this month, the European Union still isn't sure what it wants to be when it grows up.

The six-nation European Economic Community created by the Treaty of Rome signed on March 25, 1957, has grown without an architect's plan into a sprawling 27-nation union that is the world's biggest trading bloc and covers most of the continent.

A perpetual work in progress, the EU is as torn as ever between wider enlargement and deeper integration, between political unification and economic union, and between being more open to the world and protecting its manufacturers and farmers.

"European construction is not ready and will never be fully ready," European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallstrom said this week, comparing the EU to a "jigsaw puzzle" put together piece by piece without a master plan.

Opinion polls suggest this sense of hurtling toward an unknown destination is one reason why the EU's popularity has fallen in many member states, along with perceptions that it is too remote, bureaucratic, cosmopolitan and business-friendly.

On one level this can be read as a narrative of a "grand theory" that just could not be carried over into practice, a narrative that would probably apply just as well to the history of the Soviet Union. As such it provides a potential afterword to my observations about addiction. The most direct analogy is between alcoholism on the streets of Russia with the rise of binge drinking across large portions (if not the entirety) of the European Union. If Reagan were alive today touring (perhaps with Margaret Thatcher) Ireland, Finland, Britain, and Denmark (the countries at the top of the list in the SPIEGEL article), would he be forecasting the failure of the European Union?

However, why should we stop with alcoholism? If there is any soundness to my argument that addiction is a global malady, have we come to a point where, for any city whose streets we choose to walk, it is all too easy to encounter evidence of addition? Coming at a time when the global attitude towards major crises, such as the climate and the proliferation of arms, seems to vacillate between denial and dithering, does that mean that we are stuck in a system that has basically run its course? If Diggins is correct, he would probably say that Reagan was always too much of an optimist to come to such a conclusion. Diggins would probably also argue that, confronted with present conditions, Reagan would take is own initiatives towards negotiating a way out of this mess.

Interesting as such speculations may be, they can be dangerous. This is a point that Jeremy Waldron made in his article for The New York Review about Hannah Arendt's philosophy as a product of the dark times in which she lived. The title of Waldron's article is "What Would Hannah Say?;" and Waldron's key point is the inanity of such a question:

The worst thing about the question "What would Hannah do?" is the likelihood that it—or the cult that generates it—becomes a substitute for thinking for ourselves. The nature of thinking is one of the most important concerns of Arendt's social and political theory. Thinking is the "habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention," an inner dialogue, in sort of conversation with oneself, where every mental reaction is subject to criticism and in which the inner critic is also held to answer back and forth.

Arendt speculated that, in many circumstances, moral conduct seems to depend on this "intercourse of man with himself." A person contemplates murder, for example, but says to himself or herself: "I can't do this. If I did, I would have to live with a murderer for the rest of my life." But thinking is also one of the most fragile features of human consciousness. Part of what Arendt meant by the banality of evil is the possibility of wrongdoing that opens up when this inner dialogue is no longer an important feature of people's lives, so that the prospect of who I would have to live with in myself is no longer a concern.

Thinking is possible, she says, among people who know how to talk back and forth with one another—that's how one learns to think. But thinking will atrophy in an environment that lacks the stillness that allows us to concentrate in inner dialogue or, more ominously, in a social environment where distrust among people makes first outer conversation, then inner conversation impossible. We know that in totalitarian societies, distrust is fostered deliberately to this end. It is a question for us whether something less malign but equally consequential may be happening in the noise and superficiality of modern consumer society.

Much of this is consistent with the thinking and behavior of the Ronald Reagan presented in Diggins' book, due, in part, to the former president's passionate belief in that model of self-reliance espoused by Emerson. Such thinking can definitely aid our efforts to get out of the mess we are currently in. Perhaps that mindset is the trait we should be looking for, above all others, in anyone with aspirations for being our next president!

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