And Now the Dutch

Growing up in a household where everyone my parents knew were either “pink” or “red” (born to a non-Catholic family in the 1950s and named “Joseph”?), I knew only good things about the Dutch. Those illusions were somewhat dashed when Wendy Donniger, David Tracy, and I travelled to Amsterdam in 2005 to participate in a colloquium covering the recent spate of far-right murders targeting left-wing political figures, subsequently published as Wrestling with God and with Evil. A colleague and I decided on a whim to travel to the suburbs, to a pub, and explore how the rest of the Netherlands spent their time. It was then that I learned that “black santa” was not limited to Christmas. Mid-March and the bartender was in full “black-face” and wig, mocking before his all-white audience behaviors that he imagined common to Africans. I was astonished. And so I was not at all surprised to hear Lauren Frayer’s report this evening on All Things Considered.

According to Ms Frayer, right-wing neo-fascist politics is on the rise — yes, even in the Netherlands, which reinforces the conclusions I drew at the colloquium that the neo-fascist movement there, like our native born full-blown fascism, should not be ascribed to vestigial traces of barbarism. To the contrary, fascism is and has always been on the cutting edge of history, because history despises the body, all bodies, but most especially its own.

Bodies are, after all, embedded, circumscribed, and limited. They bear on their surface evidence of their limitation. Bodies open their mouths and speak the present, not the universal, the timely, not the eternal. And, so, we learned to hate bodies, to discipline them, seek their destruction, rise above them, to transcend them.

Attention to and care for bodies is what the Dutch learned how to do in the 1930s and 1940s, learned because of a natural confluence of native Reformed and naturalized Communist sensibilities. In both ideologies, “world” was believed to make a difference. If the “world” elsewhere was collapsing, the Dutch understood how care for bodies could change the world. And it did.

What I experienced in Amsterdam’s suburbs in 2005 was mocking disregard for bodies. That was twelve years ago. Evidently the contagion has spread.

The New French “Civil War”

This morning I was somewhat taken aback by a report from Emma Jane Kirby on BBC World News Today ( A quick search around the Internet appeared to verify Ms Kirby’s report that Catholicism in France is on the rise, particularly among French youth. Most reports confirm that the rise in Catholicism’s popularity parallels the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN), whose aim is to repackage French fascism in the anti-fascist garb of the national resistance to the Nazi-Vichy collaboration of the 1940s. In Ms Kirby’s report, a defender of republican rule is heard to declare that should the wall protecting the republic from the Roman church be removed, it would almost certainly result, as it always has in the past, in “civil war.”

The report took me back some twenty years to my dissertation at Chicago where I predicted that the same form of spirituality that was then sweeping across the United States and Asia would also begin to make inroads in England, Germany, and even France. This I argued was because the ground of this new spirituality is “immanent” to the more dynamic, free-market capitalism, which, I then concluded would also make headway in Europe. Sadly, it has and the consequences can be seen in a heightened attraction among European youth for militant forms of spirituality eager to discipline bodies for the wants and excesses produced by neoliberal policy.

The rise in Roman Catholicism among young people in France should not therefore be mistaken for genuine Christian revival. To the contrary. We need to recall that at no time in either Germany or France was this peculiarly violent and hateful form of Roman Catholicism more popular than in Hitler’s Germany or Vichy France. When in the 1950s and 1960s, by contrast, French and German working families enjoyed superior education, improving health, and the benefits from a broader and deeper safety net, their hostility towards those on the outside also began to retreat. So began the so-called “dark days” for the Roman church on the European continent.

So is a continental civil war similar to that experienced in Europe in the aftermath of World War I on the horizon today? The increasing popularity of post-democratic and post-republican regimes across Europe and the rise of more violent and hateful versions of Christianity certainly give us reason to believe so. Here, Christian leaders — not least the Roman Pontiff himself — bears much of the blame, but therefore much of the responsibility for averting the impending disaster. The Bishop of Rome must continue to make clear that no ethnic, national, religious or sexual grounds for exclusion will be tolerated among the faithful; that such exclusion is evidence of apostasy. Beyond the Roman Church, other faith communities must embrace and broadcast this message. No faithful Lutheran, Reformed, Orthodox, or Independent Christian will make nationality, ethnicity, religion, or gender preference a grounds for exclusion from national life.

Should our religious leaders fail to turn their communities, then I fear civil war is inevitable; and, once again, faithful Christians will side, as they did in the 1930s and 1940s, with the anti-fascists and partisans.

Cold War II

Russia is back in the news. On the BBC, on NPR, in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian — Russia is back in the news. And this means that 1960 vintage “Trots” — ignored or silent since 1989 — are dusting off their Permanent Revolution and springing back into action . . . in defense of Vladimir Putin’s Russia? Yes. In defense of Vladimir Putin’s Russia! Go figure.

Vladimir Putin

Here’s how this works. Follow closely.

We know that the capitalist west is bad: hegemonic, militarist, post-democratic, corrupt. We also know that capitalism is fundamentally unstable, riven with contradictions, splitting open at the seams. So where are we to find the real historical agents driving capitalism to its logical historical conclusion?

Russia is in the news because the west feels threatened by its arch-nemesis. Did Russia really annex the Crimea? Did Russian-backed rebels actually take down a civilian airliner? Is Russia really supporting a ruler who routinely gasses his own people? Did the Russian government really hack Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email server? Did Russian hackers really attempt to hijack the US Presidential election for Donald J. Trump? Aren’t these precisely the kinds of lies and half-truths that western imperialists would circulate in order to discredit a geopolitical enemy? WMDs? Tonkin Gulf? Saddam Hussein? Bashar al-Assad? ISIS? Syria? Terrorism?

Do you get it? Capitalism is collapsing and in its death-throws it is using state-sponsored (capitalist) media to lash out at its traditional enemy using every last pathetic arrow in its quiver.

So let us suppose for the moment that this “Trot” narrative is more or less accurate. Let us suppose in other words that global competition among capitalists is pushing efficiency-seeking to its margins where publics, tired of producing these efficiencies with nothing to show for their sacrifices, are beginning to rebel. And let us suppose that the rightward turn in EU polities generally — Brexit, Trumpism, Le Pen — are but mere symptoms of global economic turbulence — a precursor to the collapse of capitalism and its supersession by a broad, popular democratic front led by the global south and its oppressed urban post-industrial northern allies.

This of course presumes that history bears within itself an emancipatory narrative in which oppression accords the oppressed (or at least its vanguard) insights into the mechanisms of their own oppression denied to less victimized and therefore less enlightened individuals. Deep down, ethno-religious hypernationalists, fascists, racists, bigots, misogynists, and homophobes are in truth revolutionaries in disguise. Their own oppression (when properly decoded) contains the key to their emancipation. The fragmentation of eastern Europe, the Mediterranean basin, western China, southern Europe, and post-democratic North America should therefore be taken as signs of hope and redemption. Trump nostor redemptor!

If all of this seems just a tad hyperbolic, I invite you to visit any number of left-leaning blogs or websites in western Europe or the United States. So, for example, a story initially published on Breitbart in the US, which faulted the Washington Post for spreading fake news about Russian hacking, has now gone viral on left-leaning blogs and websites presumably on the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Since the Washington Post engaged in sloppy journalism, Russia did not hack US servers. Eo ipso American imperialism is on its last legs and Vladimir Putin is angelus autem salutis, the messenger of our salvation.

But note: this is not a new cold war. It is the old cold war again, where any opponent of western imperialism and hegemony must, for this reason, be a friend of emancipation; where any cause supported by western imperialists must, for this reason, be suspect; and where therefore any narrative faulting other global oligarchies must, for this reason, be unveiled as propaganda. Never mind Russian homophobia, corporate despotism, government-sponsored hit-men carrying out vendettas against political opponents, rampant child trafficking, ethno-religious-political violence — and the list goes on and on. Such atrocities also occur in the west where they are censored by state-sponsored media. In any case, it does not matter. The US and western Europe represent the global order; Russia is seeking to disrupt and weaken the global order. Russia = Good; West = Bad.

A more nuanced reading would take the social and historical global order as the object of its critique, not in order to show how we are all moving inexorably toward the final, happy chapter; but simply in order to grasp the current state of global oppression — here, there, everywhere — where there are no redeemers, no saviors, no good guys and bad guys. For what is most troubling about the new old “Trot” narrative is how it has become a parody of itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the so-called left’s knee-jerk defense of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.