Monthly Archives: March 2007

Moving on up

Or out, actually. Having lived in my hall of residence for longer than you’d think possible, I’m now moving on. I’ve been invited to move into a nice commune with four other students on Nørrebro, and they seem like a really nice lot.

It all started with just another notice on the hall of residence newsgroups, but unlike so many other of such notices, I decided to go with this one. I went for an interview the Sunday before last, and they were quick to call back saying that they’d like to talk some more with me, and by last Wednesday, they called to let me know that the room was mine if I wanted it, already from the first of April.

So it’s been a rush to get things organized, and just yesterday did I get in touch with Henrik who’ll moving into my room here at Egmont, and he proved quite willing to move in as early as the first of April, thus saving me the expense of paying double rent for the coming month.

That means that I’ll be moving on Sunday, and you’re most welcome to drop by and lend a hand to move my stuff to the lovely commune which I will be calling home soon. Did I mention that it’s located on the fifth floor?

Politics simplified

Fundamentally, political conflict can be reduced to two opposing world views.

There are those who believe that given the opportunity, all men will prove to be inherently social and thus understand that in order to live well, those around them need to live well as well and act accordingly. We can call these people “socialists”.

Then there are those who believe that given the opportunity, all men will prove to be inherently selfish and thus understand that everybody else are equally selfish and act accordingly. We can call these people “conservatives”.

The conservatives argue that they have history to back them up. Since almost all political structures known to man have been built to both contain and promote human selfishness, they claim this as evidence that humankind is fundamentally selfish.

The socialists argue that since conservatives have always been in power, it is only evident that conservative rulers perpetuate a conservative world view in their political structures. They claim that if people were to break free of the conservative political structures, they would find that they didn’t need them in the first place.

The conservatives argue that that was the communists of the 20th century tried to do, and they failed miserably.

The socialists reply that 20th century communism never originated in a quest for all people to live well together but that it was just an ideologically obtuse version of the same conservative system of selfishness.

The conservatives claim that that just proves their point.

The socialists furiously disagree and claim that we need to believe in the best qualities of man to remain human.

The fact of the matter is that maybe 80 percent of all the people in the world don’t care much for ideology and just want to get on with their lives, caring for themselves and those around them, only jumping into action when that sphere is threatened in some way.

Another 10 percent drop out of the bottom of society, flutter around or find themselves unpolitical for any number of reasons. It is not that they don’t care, they just have a hard time even caring for themselves.

This leaves the remaining 10 percent who are zealously political. They have all of these wonderful ideas on how to make the world so much better. And to do so, they want to shape and decide how the other 90 percent lives. Unfortunately, 5 percent of them are conservatives and the other 5 percent of them are socialists.

So, at best, all we get is blatant compromise. At worst, we get repression and denial.

Afghan kites

My friend Marie-Louise left for Afghanistan recently to spend a little over four months there working for a development NGO called DACAAR. I helped her set up a blog which she has named Eyes Out There for her to tell the world about her travels.

Since I won’t be going to Afghanistan any time soon, I settled for the next thing (well, apart from actually going out meeting Afghanis), and read the Kite Runner by Khaled Husseini.

It is a heart-breaking novel in more ways than one, and last night, I found myself unable to put it down, reading the last 250 pages in one sitting. The story has strong allegorical traits describing not only the story of two boys growing up and growing apart, but also a country being torn apart first from the outside and then from the inside – in a way much like the protagonists it portrays.

Not only does the book teach a lot of wondrous details about Afghanistan and the way of life and some of the reasons behind the differences in that torn country, but it also manages to combine it with a lot of heart and humanity. I found the end to be somewhat predictable, but given the nature of Husseini’s topic, clichés seem inescapable as he calmly acknowledges:

I always thought that cliches got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on. But the aptness of the cliched saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliche.

And indeed, much of the plot of the book seems to be based on the story of Rostam and Sohrab from the ancient Persian book of Kings, the Shahnameh. I suppose that it is true that these days, all of the great stories have already been told, and all stories easily look like variations on the same theme of the human condition. But as long as they’re as well written and earnest as this one, I for one won’t mind.

No heroes

There aren’t any heroes anymore, it seems. According to some, this is much to the loss of today’s youth who are in sore need of heroes and heroism to inspire them. Media critic Thomas de Zengotita explains it like this:

The favoured explanation says that real heroes have been replaced by sports and entertainment stars. And that’s right, as far as it goes, but it would be better to phrase it this way: in today’s environment, real heroes must become stars if they are to exist in public culture. That is, they must perform. But as soon as they do, they can’t compete with real stars – who are performers. How neat is that?

The essence of real heroes in the good old days – Newton and Napoleon and Goethe – was that they were essentially unreal. They were not known as people. They were their works and deeds, their myths. They were fictional constructs, even in their own lifetimes, invented by the people who idolized them, on the basis of a few stories and images – so few. The whole dynamic is a function of representational quantity and quality.
[…]
… as soon as real heroes are represented publicly, repeatedly, they are doomed. In effect, virtual heroes – the real performers – present themselves so fabulously and consistently across the decades they make it impossible for hero-candidates to succeed. We don’t have real heroes anymore because they are too real; representations of them are too rich and detailed. There is no room for us to supply them with mythic life.”

Instead we immerse ourselves in sports and entertainment stars who generally seem more akin to fiction than reality: Madonna, Tiger Woods, Carrie Bradshaw, James Bond, Lara Croft …

Pop-music stars who stand something across their appearances come as close as a mediated culture allows to genuine heroic stature. […] There is no cause they are summoning their fans to serve – other than the cause of being whoever you are.

We give these stars our attention so that they can confirm the ideals that we seek. Of what we want to be like. In the end they help us to define ourselves, since even though it may seem to be all about them, they are merely reflections of your own model self. The stars dance for our amusement so we don’t have to. It is all about you.

So in our hyper-specialized, mediated modern society it is the people who specialize in working the media who are cast to be the heroes. Those whose careers revolve around gathering our attention. It is the actors, pop stars and even politicians who want us to do adore them. But they can only win our fancy by giving us what we want: Something that we can relate to. Something like ourselves.

De Zengotita argues that we are becoming method actors ourselves. Not being ourselves but rather playing ourselves. Constantly posing and building ourselves into a narrative, exaggerating our feelings and experiences to make them feel more like an adventure, constantly exposing ourselves through Myspace, Youtube and blogs like this, constantly mediating ourselves to match our overexposed fictional heroes from TV, magazines and cinema. Or alternatively choosing an escapistic departure from reality all together, refashioning themselves as the fictional hero through computer and role-playing games, adopting the stance of Don Quijote in denying reality in order to bring their own, hidden safely away from whoever might ask.

“I’m not a revolutionary, but I play one on TV”

Some commentators have used this line of argument as an explanation of why the Copenhagen Youth House activists feel so strongly for their cause yet have managed to make little impact with it. Expounding this view in Politiken, Lars Trier Mogensen writes:

For years, the activists have staged, dressed, and made up themselves to be exponents of a radical political counter culture. But they haven’t brought any revolutionary projects into being, apart from what can be sung into a microphone and discussed in closed gatherings. The Youth House has been a popular culture centre, not a revolutionary command centre.

Mogensen argues that in fact, these young protesters aren’t revolutionaries at all. Rather, they are just acting out a romantic vision of the revolutionary activist as they recognize from eras gone by, comparing themselves to medieval peasant uprisings and the resistance movement of World War II, fighting for their ideals against totalitarian regimes.

But Mogensen claims that these activists are merely pirated copies of those heroes of yore. There is no great ideological battle to fight. There is no struggle that justifies violence. As it is, they have nothing to say. Their only message is a cry for attention staged as political action which only becomes real in front of the TV cameras when it is already too late. As Mogensen concludes with a tinge of unsettled wonder at the opinions expressed by the activists in the special supplement to Danish newspaper Information written by Youth House activists:

Aside from writing furiously about the “correct people with empty promises” in Information, the activist writers exhibited a strange longing for an actual project: “You cannot escape. Everything can be sold and you wonder whether it would better to stop struggling so they can’t sell the struggle? Are we a necessity for this structure? We are more paralyzed than we would be in a totalitarian dictatorship. There at least there there would be something to fight and die for.”

According to Mogensen, these young activists have adopted the role of the revolutionary to play a live role playing game, escaping reality by opposing society, defining themselves through their opposition to mainstream society. Yet finding themselves frustrated that it does not allow for a clearly defined struggle.

Unfortunately, Mogensen and de Zengotita’s arguments seem to lead to a fairly cynical outlook on life. As love and hope and other human emotions are no longer original but rather copies to be acted out as if in some method acting workshop, we seem to cease to be human, but rather just mediated copies of copies trapped in some labyrinthine post-modern mirror-reality which even our would-be heroes can do nothing but perpetuate, not only strengthening its grip on us but also making it seemingly impervious to change.

It is this fear that the activist essayist is trying to convey in the above quote picked by Mogensen: How do you oppose a system so penetrating that even your opposition becomes part of it as well as a struggle to be reported, analyzed, mediated and sold? Would it be better to stop struggling?

Rather than stop, they try other tactics to negate the effects of the system. They adopt DIY ethics for their cultural production. They resist copyright law, distributing text, music and images for free. They present themselves to the media only rarely, and as a group rather than as individuals. They wear black ski masks or pink wigs to disguise their identities like superheroes like Batman, Daredevil or Subcomandante Marcos (heh). They become an outwardly uniform group where all are as one to avoid building anyone up as leaders or heroes, consciously making themselves less mediated, less “real” in order to turn themselves into mythical symbols of the ideals for which they fight.

Those ideals are what Mogensen cynically labels as copies of old passion. But they can also be seen as a rebellious desperation caused by that same lack of passion. It is with such a cry for pure, unmediated human emotion that the activist essay ends:

At times you come close to real emotion. In moments you make a difference. It is enough to make it worth living. It is enough to make you feel human. It is more than most can hope for. So once in a while we throw our hearts through the windows. Because we have to. And at times, they beat.

Democracies

The recent eviction of the Youth House has envigorated the Danish debate of what democracy actually is and on which premises democracy works – a debate that long-time readers of this blog will know I find very interesting. Especially since people tend to use democracy as a value in it self, to be exported to other parts of the world as an unquestionable good.

Actually, as the Hungarian philosopher, Agnes Heller points out, democracy is easier to export that it is to build from the ground up. Because you are exporting a complete system, a complete set of unquestionable set of values to be accepted and incorporated in the receiving society. But building and maintaining a democracy isn’t an easy, given thing. Democracy needs constant renegotiation – not only of who’s in power and whether or not they’re doing a good job, but also of the institutions and processes through which we maintain a democracy. As Heller argues:

Levinas has explained why democracy is difficult. Democracy is unnatural compared to the easy and natural monarchy where the son inherits the power from the father. It is a constituted form that demands constant reconstitution and renewal. Because if our freedoms are constituted, then they can be taken from us again – for instance when people become more concerned about their personal well-being than their constitutional rights… Democracy is fragile both from the inside and the outside.

This structural fragility was exposed and criticized this week when Pernille Rosenkrantz Theil, a young, Danish, left-wing politician, quit politics, protesting how shallow and two-faced she had experienced Danish politics. She tells of her experiences with talking to politicians from various political parties behind the scenes, and how they express completely different views than the ones they expound on TV. They prefer to hide their motives and play a media-friendly role hoping to please and appease their voters based on what the latest polls say.

She denounces polls as rarely reflecting how voters feel, but only how well the political spin has blurred their judgement. As she says:

The hierarchical structure [within the political party] forces people to fight for positions og candidatures … it is a party culture that is rotten to the core and which schools people in a power game which isn’t worthy of a democracy.

Rosenkrantz-Theil wants to stop the democratic system from spawning career politicians who learn to play the system and the power games which they promote. Instead, she hopes to resolve this tendency through a rotation system and less hierarchical party structures (such as that of her own) which will incorporate much more flow and movement in the inherent unstable democratic power structures. Since democracy seems to consist of flowing opinions, people rarely reflectively maintaining opinions as both they and their society change, maybe not only the political structures and processes but also the political parties and communities should have that flow of people, opinions, ideas and initiatives as their uniting factor.

This sounds remarkably similar to Athenian democracy usually considered the inspiration of all modern democracies. The Athenians used a rotation principle for all public positions, and had an intricate version of direct democracy where all of the (male, war-capable, land-owning) citizens had a vote. As classical philologist and expert in ancient Greek political culture Mogens Herman Hansen notes in an interview in Danish newspaper Politiken:

The old Greek ideal was that political participation was not just a means to reach other goals. It was a central value to be participating in an assembly of fellow citizens, to determine and distribute society’s wealth with arguments and discussion. It was the social core of their being. That is why Greeks were citizens rather than individuals.

In ancient Athens, the democracy required a complete conviction of shared responsibility and influence among its citizens, since if they gave up on their rights and responsibilities, there was a very real risk of the city-state being attacked or usurped by a tyrant in a similar fashion to many other Greek city-states. A part of maintaining such a democracy soon proved to be being able to agree on the most difficult part of any democracy: the use of force. As Hansen remarks:

Kant argued that the citizens in a democracy would never vote for a war in which they themselves might perish on the battlefield [… But] ancient Greece shows plenty of examples of democracies fighting democracies. The public assemblies authorized warfare again and again based on popular majority. And back then battles were bloody affairs with lots of casualities.

Hansen underlines this by quoting from Euripides’ “the Suppliants“:

For whenso the city has to vote on the question of war, no man ever takes his own death into account, but shifts this misfortune on to his neighbour

And he grimly concludes that democracy does not breed peace. Rather, it is peace that breeds democracy. Maybe that is the curious strength of the direct democracy of the Youth House, grown in the most peaceful and welfaring society in the world. It is a system of decision-making that sounds quite similar to that of ancient Athens but takes it even further by being consensus-based and thus requiring even more discussion in a way that probably would be unfeasible in bigger assemblies such as the Athenian democracy.

Yet even the direct democracy of the Youth House consents to and condones violence. As Eva, one of the Youth House activists, says of their resorting to violent methods after their appeal case for the sale of the house was irrevocably turned down:

We spent seven years trying to get the politicians to open negotiations with us. We have arranged soup kitchens, peaceful protests, long lists of all the musicians who have played gigs in the house for our cause. But nobody paid any attention. […] After [the riots on] the 16th of December everybody said that they wouldn’t negotiate with us anymore. But people forget that they hadn’t wanted to negotiate with us before either. A few days later they suddenly did want to negotiate. I don’t really like that violence is a card to be played, but unfortunately history has shown again and again that it works.

In democracies like the Danish, the state has a clear monopoly on violence – a monopoly which very few question as it entrusted to the state institutions by the majority of the Danish voters in the agreement that violence is a trump reserved to be used against those unwilling to play according to the commonly agreed rules. So even when protesters throw bricks, cobblestones and Molotov cocktails, the police respond with batons and tear gas, even though they have much more powerful weapons in their arsenal, as if they are not feeling truly threatened. They have the support of the many.

As Agnes Heller argues convincingly, demographics is often an underestimated factor in functional democracies. Democracy works best among people who share the same values and thus respect each other. That is why multi-ethnic and multi-religious nations can only be held together by dictators such as Tito, Stalin or Saddam Hussein. As she concludes:

Iraq should be divided into three countries if it was to be democratic. People want to live among people who are like themselves, and that may be wrong – but that is reality; no matter how much all the clever intellectuals criticize it.

A democracy prerequisites a shared identity and homogeneity among its citizens. Such a shared identity may be expressed through shared values such as patriotism, religion, ethnicity or political ideology, or in opposition to something else. As the Youth House activists do when they endorse violent protests through an inclusive line of argument that

It is decisive for the Youth House that no one is excluded from participating in this struggle. Don’t look askance at your comrades in this struggle. There has to be room for both ski masks and finger paints. Passive resistance and aggression. Respect each other and remember that we have the same goal. Act as part of the protests you participate in.

thus defining themselves as a group based on what they are opposing rather than what they have in common. And they are opposing exactly what the many of the Danish public agree upon: The media-constructed, consumerist homogeneity of Danish society. And for fear of becoming part of the system they oppose, they see no alternative to violence. As Youth House activist Birgit put it:

It is sad thing to realize that we are living in a democracy where you only have influence if you have 100 million kroner like Maersk or if you’re willing to risk your life in front of an oncoming police truck.

Thus Birgit posits capital as the only powerful alternative of action to violence. Much like Mogens Herman Hansen who also points to opaque corporations as the main threat – not only to democracy but also to the nation state as a whole. He connects this waxing of corporate power with the globalization of national markets, turning the world into one interdependent economic eco-system changing many of the values recognized from the traditional nation state:

Globalization is displacing the foundations for our way of life. All of our modern concepts are under attack. So we bring out these well-known ideals: Human rights and the representative democracy.

We cling to these ideals as if they are the only values that won’t deflate as global economic, cultural, and technological trends converge against us. And when we struggle to maintain these values in the face of polls, media spin and opportunistic politicians, we seek to confirm them by exporting them as a complete, tried and tested package for others to adopt – even if we have to start a war to do so.

There’s a riot going on

Since Thursday morning, Copenhagen has been a pretty interesting place to be. Thursday morning was when the police forcefully and effectively evicted the activists of the Youth House which had been in the hands of several generations of young punks and squatters for the past 24 years – most of this time with a legal agreement with the city of Copenhagen.

But the city council sold off the house to a Christian sect in 2001, and despite a number of long-running appeal cases, the activists found no way to overturn the decision. And when the final appeal was turned down in December last year, making the house officially squatted, there was a huge protest as frustrated young activists went on a rampage, wrecking neighbourhood store fronts and fighting the police.

Back then, the city council politicians immediately used the opportunity to condemn the Youth House activists for their violent protest, conveniently forgetting that the activists had exhausted every other option for a peaceful solution at that point. Then, a group of investors sympathetic to the Youth House cause stepped up and offered to buy back the house from the Christian sect who refused all offers.

During the first months of this year, the politicians have warily sought to find a solution of sorts, entering into negotiations for finding a new youth house for the activists. The Youth House activists usually work together and make decisions based on a direct consensus-based democracy at their Monday meetings, and after a long week of meetings, they agreed that they were willing to give up their current house for a new one – if, and only if, the city council would acknowledge the need for alternative cultural centres such as the Youth House by giving them the new house for free – just like city council originally had given the activists the old house.

The city council refused saying that they would not be pressured into giving away the house by threats of violence (thus ignoring the 24 years of free cultural activities the activists had already supplied) and quoted a price of 12 million kroner – a price the investors were willing to pay, but the Youth House activists refused on grounds of principle, arguing that this would be to acquit the city council for selling their house and let them avoid acknowledging the activists’ rights to a youth house as per the original 1982 agreement.

That was were negotiations finally soured and died, leaving little hope to killed off when the police evicted the activists. When the activists left the house, the Monday meeting – their sole instance of decision-making – disappeared with it, leaving in essence the unmediated anarchy of individuals each on their own taking up the measures matching their frustration. And there has been protests every day of the weekend, a number of them turning violent with flaming barricades in the streets, Molotov cocktails and burnt out cars. The feeling being that they have nothing left to lose.

This seems to have been confirmed just today as the mayor, Ritt Bjerregaard, is quoted for saying that it is not the obligation of the city council to guarantee a youth house for the autonomous activists of Copenhagen and refused to spend another minute discussing the matter.

Living fairly close to the Youth House, I’ve passed through the area several times during the past few days, once having to skip over a burning barricade on my way, once having to dodge police trucks advancing down the street clearing the rubble (and rabble?) before them, once almost running afoul in tear gas spreading down the streets. And it really gets your adrenaline pumping.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who was curious and excited about the events. Any place where there were slightest hint of trouble, journalists and photographers immediately joined the fray, filming and snapping photos, the most adventurous ones even standing in the front line, and one of them getting in trouble about it with his employers.

In the activist circles that kind of footage and reporting is called riot porn, and usually it requires little pretense. Riot porn pretty much looks the same all over the world, whether it is a political cause or just random football hooligans brawling. The important part is the raw aggression of the mob against the police.

All riots look the same since the circumstances under which they occur tend to be the same. That vital mental connection between your actions and the state-sanctioned actions of the police is cut. When you look at a window and see no good reason not to break it. All seems fair, and all goals apart from the mayhem itself seems to disappear. From the rumours I’ve heard, many of the people involved in the riots weren’t actually youth house activists (not to excuse them, since many of them most definitely wanted the confrontation as well), but rather random adrenaline junkies, football hooligans, drunks, local hoodlums, old punks and adventurers drawn out by the simple promise of confrontation rallied under by the carnage itself.

Ironically, the estimated damages in destroyed property, cars, roads, storefronts combined with the expenses in police man hours now exceed 14 million kroner – more than what the city council asked for the suggested alternative youth house. And today, the Christian sect owning the old youth house have begun tearing the whole thing down to avoid further confrontations with the activists (they claim it’s because the house was in a state beyond repair, but that seems to be another convenient excuse).

It seems only the ones who wanted the confrontation – whether for reasons of principle or simply for the hell of it – the Youth House activists, the Christian sect, the City Council, the media and all of the random trouble-makers joining in, got something out of this mess.

Hopefully, they’ll wise up someday.