The exuberance of the early 2000s has given way to mistrust, but catastrophe can be avoided if we keep a close eye on the past
In 2007, Australian literary critic Clive James published an extraordinary collection of portrait essays on the thinkers of the 20th century that had shaped his intellectual life. Called Cultural Amnesia – Notes in the Margin of my Time, it was the product of 40 years’ worth of reading and annotations, and an attempt to wrest an important legacy from oblivion. For the reader it adds up to a powerful defense of the vibrancy and relevance of humanism, liberal democracy and clarity of expression – what reviewer J.M. Coetzee called a “crash course in civilization.”
James begins in the coffee houses of turn-of-the-century Vienna, because here, with all the complications, the ideal of humanistic pluralism was real, and stands to this day as a model for the aspirations of Europe in the 21st century.
In the 10 years since, a lot has happened, and most of it deeply unsettling: The financial crisis of 2008-2009, the economic paralysis and soaring unemployment in Europe’s south and east; terrorism and unprecedented floods of refugees shaking the European consensus and feeding the agenda of the far right, leading to the U.K. vote to leave the Union, and to a growing rift down the fault line that was once the Iron Curtain. And to this we should add the apparent success of our enemies– including the Russia of Vladimir Putin – to use our own social media to sabotage Western democracy.
Suddenly, the optimism of the new Millennium has devolved into helplessness and rage. Part of this is a problem of memory. When I arrived in Vienna in the mid-90s, eloquent witnesses to the horrors of WWII were still here, Viktor Frankl and Simon Wiesenthal and others. What happens when these witnesses are gone?
Now we are finding out. Just as the deregulators of the 1980s had forgotten why the 1930s financial controls and Bretton Woods in 1944 had mattered in the first place; even after the “Nixon shock” in 1971, much of that system had remained in place. Today, “many diplomats have forgotten the reasons for the EU,” says Austrian sociologist Christian Karner. “The past has been turned into a collage of easy references, a kind of cultural bankruptcy that is extremely dangerous.”
At its core, the European Union is about avoiding war – the self-inflicted nightmares of the first half of the 20th century from which it has taken the other half to recover.
As the wall came down in 1989, it seemed that the humanistic vision of the Vienna coffee house would become reality after all, the liberal pluralistic system had won out over brutalized autocracy. But somehow we have let this victory slip away.
Can we remember the way back?