Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 17, 2007

Eternal Text

Since I arrived in Rome not long ago to take up a post as a guest professor, this most fascinating and puzzling of cities has more and more come to strike me as an urban-architectural attic, a place in which the achievements of humankind over twenty-five centuries have been accumulated and recorded. This accumulation has resulted in a largely haphazard and undifferentiated mass, a collection riddled with serendipities and self-contradictions, in which almost everyone of note gets to have a street, or a block or two of a street, named after him.

The naming falls on the just and the unjust alike. Even the zanily theatrical medieval revolutionary Cola di Rienzo, the kind of man most cities would prefer to forget, has been granted a long and important thoroughfare in the Prati neighborhood. True, there is no Via Mussolini in Rome. But one does not have to look too hard to find even his name in public places: the medallion high above the stage at the Teatro dell’Opera, his bust on the wall of the famous Caffè Greco.

Rome does not tell one story, or five, or even a hundred, but an infinitude, and it is up to you to sort them out. This is true of any great metropolis. But it is particularly true here: the artifacts of history are plentiful and undeniably important, and beg to be interpreted, yet so often are ambiguous in meaning.

Read More

Since I arrived in Rome not long ago to take up a post as a guest professor, this most fascinating and puzzling of cities has more and more come to strike me as an urban-architectural attic, a place in which the achievements of humankind over twenty-five centuries have been accumulated and recorded. This accumulation has resulted in a largely haphazard and undifferentiated mass, a collection riddled with serendipities and self-contradictions, in which almost everyone of note gets to have a street, or a block or two of a street, named after him.

The naming falls on the just and the unjust alike. Even the zanily theatrical medieval revolutionary Cola di Rienzo, the kind of man most cities would prefer to forget, has been granted a long and important thoroughfare in the Prati neighborhood. True, there is no Via Mussolini in Rome. But one does not have to look too hard to find even his name in public places: the medallion high above the stage at the Teatro dell’Opera, his bust on the wall of the famous Caffè Greco.

Rome does not tell one story, or five, or even a hundred, but an infinitude, and it is up to you to sort them out. This is true of any great metropolis. But it is particularly true here: the artifacts of history are plentiful and undeniably important, and beg to be interpreted, yet so often are ambiguous in meaning.

Let the grandiose monument at the Piazza Venezia to King Vittorio Emmanuele II, the Vittoriano, a structure cordially hated by most Romans, stand as an example. This wildly over-the-top creation, with its too-white Brescian marble and its endless columns, steps, horses, winged lions, and its Unknown Soldier, has the false grandeur of an oversustained operatic high note. Begun in 1885 and inaugurated in 1911, it was meant as a triumphant symbol of Italian national unity. And its placement, overshadowing so much of the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Hill, shows that it was meant in part as an effort to loosen the grip of Italy’s fractured past, and wave away its ghosts.

But the tale always eludes the control of the teller, especially here in Rome. The very fact that the Vittoriano is, quite simply, too, too much, shows that it was announcing something prematurely, in a way that bespoke nervous bravado, not settled self-confidence—as events of the successive decades would demonstrate. Even today, the fractiousness and regional rivalries that beset Italy indicate that a unified Italian nation remains far less fully achieved than such a monument would suggest. The monument has become an expression of cultural insecurity at the city’s very center (or at least one of them). And the monument now stands forever (if only as a lasting subject of complaint) as a part of the Eternal City’s eternal text.

Rome’s physical and political history is so deep and so rich that no-one could ever fully control the meaning of any architectural addition to the city. Realizing this is both inhibiting and inspiring. Inhibiting, because in Rome you don’t feel a surge of that great sense of human possibility that electrifies the air in New York, for example; the young Romans I meet seem to like New York, and Los Angeles, and America for their embodiment of precisely that quality.

In Rome, you are humbled in the way you are humbled when you stand before some great natural wonder. Except that the wonder before you is a hybrid, both manmade and yet not manmade, being in large measure a work that could only have been produced by the hands of time itself. And it does not reveal itself automatically or immediately. You must work at deciphering it, the work of years—and work well worth doing if one is privileged to get the chance.

Read Less

Kamm vs. Geras

A contretemps about the value of political blogging is currently taking place between Oliver Kamm and Norm Geras, two British intellectuals who have vigorously opposed what today passes in Britain for mainstream liberal commentary–and, as it happens, two formidable bloggers. Kamm, a leftist in domestic politics, vocally supports a neoconservative foreign policy; Geras is a Marxist political philosopher and a co-author of the Euston Manifesto, an online statement denouncing the growing alliance between the European Left and radical Islamists that has garnered dozens of signatories.

So what, you might ask, are they arguing about? About this puzzling statement from Kamm in the Guardian last week:

Blogs are providers not of news but of comment. This would be a good thing if blogs extended the range of available opinion in the public sphere. But they do not; paradoxically, they narrow it. This happens because blogs typically do not add to the available stock of commentary: they are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions that traditional media provide.

This was a curious lament from one who not only has his own blog but who sees nothing but political tendentiousness on display in such “old media” outlets as the BBC and, indeed, the Guardian. What is more, Kamm’s book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy shows how ideological echo chambers, whether on- or offline, have always diminished the style and substance of political debate. Were Communists in the 1930’s any less “parasitic” on the stories and opinions of the Daily Worker than bloggers are on their mainstream-media counterparts today?

Read More

A contretemps about the value of political blogging is currently taking place between Oliver Kamm and Norm Geras, two British intellectuals who have vigorously opposed what today passes in Britain for mainstream liberal commentary–and, as it happens, two formidable bloggers. Kamm, a leftist in domestic politics, vocally supports a neoconservative foreign policy; Geras is a Marxist political philosopher and a co-author of the Euston Manifesto, an online statement denouncing the growing alliance between the European Left and radical Islamists that has garnered dozens of signatories.

So what, you might ask, are they arguing about? About this puzzling statement from Kamm in the Guardian last week:

Blogs are providers not of news but of comment. This would be a good thing if blogs extended the range of available opinion in the public sphere. But they do not; paradoxically, they narrow it. This happens because blogs typically do not add to the available stock of commentary: they are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions that traditional media provide.

This was a curious lament from one who not only has his own blog but who sees nothing but political tendentiousness on display in such “old media” outlets as the BBC and, indeed, the Guardian. What is more, Kamm’s book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy shows how ideological echo chambers, whether on- or offline, have always diminished the style and substance of political debate. Were Communists in the 1930’s any less “parasitic” on the stories and opinions of the Daily Worker than bloggers are on their mainstream-media counterparts today?

In making his case, Kamm cited Nick Cohen, another disillusioned leftist whose book, What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way, is the polemic of the hour in Britain. If Cohen “did not exist,” Kamm asserted, “a significant part of the blogosphere . . . would have no purpose and nothing to react to.” To this, Geras’s swift riposte was to point out that Kamm had things backward. In fact, the torrents of anti-Semitic abuse on certain left-wing blogs, including the comment thread on the Guardian’s own “Comment Is Free” blog, provided Nick Cohen with much of his evidence for the rabid degeneracy of today’s British Left. If anything, one might say that political blogging, by bringing this degeneracy to light, has gone some way toward getting at least a few liberals to break ranks with old comrades.

The Kamm-Geras dispute is related to a larger one that has been equally in the news: the question of civility in blogging. Kathy Sierra, an American technology blogger, recently announced that she had canceled a speaking engagement due to recurrent threatening and insulting comments made about her on other websites—sometimes accompanied by violent, Photoshop-doctored pictures. This led to a predictable cycle of loud self-examination within the blogosphere: Should we adopt a “civility code” to regulate the style and substance of our discourse? Is it time to rein in the free-for-all character of this embryonic medium?

This kind of talk is nothing new. But now Jim Wales, the founder of the collective online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and Tim O’Reilly, a publisher and the primary advocate of Web 2.0, have advocated adopting just such a code. O’Reilly and Wales want what amounts to a decency code for the internet. Their idea has in turn been widely denounced, including by Kamm himself.

In their disparate ways, both of these discussions circle around the large problem presented by the blogosphere’s laissez-faire mode of conversation. The problem is especially egregious on blogs that do not require comment-writers to post a working email address. Just as one chooses words with greater care when talking face-to-face, so one tends to be somewhat less vituperative with an accessible inbox. But even moderated, non-anonymous comments still contain plenty of stupidity and vitriol.

In short, the anarchy of the blogosphere, which is the source of much of its good, is also the source of its ills. What remains to be seen is whether, absent regulation, the theory that good speech drives out bad has here met its final test, and lost. If so, the age of the regulators will not be far behind.

Read Less

Thoughts in a Freiburg Cemetery

As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.

In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.

Read More

As the Jewish world commemorated the Holocaust last weekend, I happened to be at a conference in what was once the heart of darkness. Freiburg, a small town in Germany, was the scene of perhaps the most notorious single example of trahison des clercs, the betrayal of reason by the intellectuals.

In May 1933, Martin Heidegger inaugurated his term as rector of the university by extolling the “glory and greatness” of the new Nazi state and its Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, on behalf of professors and students alike. Heidegger immediately distanced himself from those of his former friends and colleagues who were Jewish—with the partial exception of his lover Hannah Arendt—and above all from Edmund Husserl, to whom he had dedicated his masterpiece, Being and Time, in “admiration and friendship” only five years before. Even today, his record makes painful reading, though he has never lacked for apologists.

The odious pettiness of Heidegger’s personal conduct, and the moral collapse that it implied, was brought home to me by a visit to the little cemetery in Günterstal, a suburb of Freiburg. We were there to pay our respects at the grave of Walter Eucken, the great economist whose work inspired the post-war “economic miracle” and helped to set Germany back on the path of liberty and democracy.

A stone’s throw away from the memorial to Eucken is the Husserl family grave. A young scholar at the Walter Eucken Institute, Nils Goldschmidt, told me how Freiburg treated the founder of phenomenology, who was then the most famous living German philosopher. Having already retired when Hitler came to power, Husserl avoided the teaching ban that was imposed on Jewish professors, but he was not even allowed to use the university library. Socially, not only Heidegger but practically all the professors at Freiburg shunned Husserl—with the exception of Eucken, whose wife Edith was herself partly Jewish and who continued to pay visits to the Husserls. While Heidegger was busily excising all references to his former master from new editions of Being and Time, Eucken made a point of quoting Husserl.

When Husserl died in 1938, only two professors attended his funeral: the economist Eucken and the historian Gerhard Ritter. Long afterwards, in an interview he gave to Der Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger excused himself by claiming that it was the Husserls who had broken off relations, not the other way round. But he admitted that “it was a human failing that I did not express once more my gratitude and my admiration” at the time of Husserl’s death. I do not think Heidegger ever grasped the enormity of his “human failing,” of which his treatment of his teacher was only a symbol. But it is Heidegger the Nazi who still basks in the posthumous limelight, while the names of Husserl and Eucken are known only to specialists.

On a warm April evening in that lovely place surrounded by hills, the stillness broken only by the church bell, I tried to imagine the unimaginable repeating itself here in Europe. A lifetime—threescore years and ten—now separates us from the great betrayal. Just long enough for a combination of anxiety and amnesia to wipe out the memory of those days. In British schools, many teachers are afraid to talk about the history of anti-Semitism because they fear confrontation with their Muslim students, who have often been told at the mosque that the Shoah is a myth.

Even in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, there is vast ignorance about both the past and its implications for the present. Few are prepared to entertain the thought that, unless Iran and other Islamist states or terrorists are prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, our generation, too, may witness another Holocaust. They do not seem to grasp that this time, Israel’s fate is directly linked to Europe’s.

One retired German professor, just old enough to remember the Third Reich, has this week made a symbolic commitment to that shared destiny. Joseph Ratzinger, writing under his own name, not as Pope Benedict XVI, has published the first part of a book about Jesus Christ. To judge from extracts in the German press, the main import of this work is finally to lay to rest the age-old enmity of the Church and the Jews. For the first time, a Pope has not only portrayed Jesus as an observant Jew, “the living embodiment of the Torah,” but has written with humility and love about the Jews of Jesus’ time. Gone is the old caricature of the Pharisee as hypocrite and the “Old Testament morality” as un-Christian. John Paul II already embraced the living covenant and divine purpose of Israel. But Benedict has gone even further: in his view, only the person of Jesus divides Jew and Christian, and the universal mission of Jesus is entirely compatible with the special status of the Jewish people.

A lifetime separates Heidegger’s betrayal from Ratzinger’s reconciliation. How long before Europe recognizes the present danger to Jew and Christian alike, and unites against the common enemies of Western civilization?

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.