The Free World … of Slums

The Free World … of Slums
The Free World … of Slums

Although Timothy Garton Ash is my political opponent, I’ve always admired his wealth of precise observations and found him a reliable source on the vicissi-tudes of post-Communist Eastern Europe. In his new book, The Free World: America, Europe and the Suprising Future of the West, Ash applies his signature bitterly witty approach to the growing tensions between key Western European states and the United States. His aperçus about the relations among the United Kingdom, France and Germany recall the gentle irony of a novel of manners, giving a new twist to the old topic of “European trinity.”

Hegel was among the first to interpret the geo-graphic triad of Germany-France-England as expressing three existential attitudes: German reflective thoroughness, French revolutionary hastiness and English moderate pragmatism. In terms of political stances, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of a predominating social sphere, it is German culture versus French politics versus English economy. Ash observes that today this trinity has undergone a strange displacement: The French are preoccupied with culture (How to save their legacy from vulgar Americanization); the English focus on political dilemmas (Should they join the European Monetary Union?); the Germans worry about the sad inertia of their economy.

A desired goal might be a further shift: The English focused on culture (their cultural tolerance and lack of pretence could serve as an antidote to French arrogant elitism and German excessive seriousness). The French focused on economy (which, against all expectations, theirs has been doing rather well). And—surprise!—Germans on politics (where their recent political life has served as a model of reasonable debate that avoids blind passions).

So far, so good. However, in the second half of The Free World, when Ash diagnoses the threats to freedom in the post-Cold War, he becomes dogmatic and simplistic, his proposed solutions hopelessly naïve and declaratory. True, here and there, one finds insights surprising for a man of Ash’s political position (like his unambiguous attack on the trade agreements that are pushing the poorer countries toward ruin). Yet his positive proposals lack any foundation in a detailed analysis of the global situation. First, he identifies four “new Red Armies” (sic!) as forces of Evil (or historical processes) that pose or will pose a threat to democracy in the future: 1) the Near East situation (the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism); 2) the Far East situation (what will China develop into with regard to democracy?); 3) the gap between the rich North and poor South; and 4) the oncoming environmental catastrophe.

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on September 23rd, 2004. (full text).]

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