Author: Lewis Slawsky

Memory and History

Memorialization and politics in Germany seventy-two years after the Second World War

By: Aditya Adhikari

Today the Holocaust stands as the epitome of political evil. The German people’s effort to renounce and atone for their past is often held up as exemplary. “Never again” – these words first appeared on handmade placards put up by inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after the Nazi defeat in 1945. In the following decades, the slogan radiated out into the world and was repeated in Cambodia, Argentina, Rwanda, Bosnia. The trials of war criminals in post-war Germany, the reparations provided to victims and the memorials erected in their name have become lodestars for what is now called ‘transitional justice’.

I participated in a seminar organized by the Robert Bosch Stiftung on Truth, Justice and Remembrance in late 2016. During our excursions in Berlin and Nuremberg, I had the sense that Germany’s sites of commemoration did not just evoke the horrors of the Holocaust but also showed how German attitudes had evolved in the post-war period.

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Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties

By: Stefan Schindler

Muhammad Ali died on June 3rd, 2016, at the age of 74.  Unsurprisingly, the media has been flooded with articles celebrating history’s most famous boxing champion.  But Muhammad Ali was more than just king of the ring.  He was a political figure with enormous influence.  Too many people today, perhaps especially young people, are unaware of this important fact.  It is a fact worth recalling.  The social conflicts informing the revolutionary turbulence of the 1960s are still with us, and in some ways are more extreme now than they were then.

It is appropriate, therefore, to take another look at Ali’s life, and to note the inextricable intertwine of his boxing fame and his political impact.  Mike Marqusee’s book on Ali – Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and The Spirit of The Sixties (Verso; 1999) – acts as an excellent guide.  It reminds us that we still have a long way to go in achieving social justice, and that the socio-political battles of the Sixties are far from over.  Marqusee’s opening paragraph is astute and provocative:

“A strange fate befell Muhammad Ali in the 1990s.  The man who had defied the American establishment was taken into its bosom.  There he was lavished with an affection which had been strikingly absent thirty years before, when for several years he reigned unchallenged as the most reviled figure in the history of American sports.”

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Israel in Europe: How Extreme Voices Come to Dominate the Conversation

By: Joshua Goodman

It was a vivid and shocking image: American musician Matisyahu performing on the main stage of a 2015 festival in Spain, the very one that disinvited him just a week prior for refusing to condemn Israeli war crimes, with 20 or so Palestinian flags staring right back at him. The intent was to intimidate; the message was one of hatred.

The treatment of Israel, its supporters, and Jews overall in the political realm can conjure similar imagery. From the virulent attacks against the existence of the Jewish State – contentions that extend well beyond the pale of acceptable criticism – to the outright bigotry towards the Jews. The recent revelations of at least 50 suspensions within the British Labour party, long the political home for many within the Jewish communities of the UK, underscores the prevalence and mainstream nature of the problem.

The Jewish experience in Europe can accordingly be perceived as grave. Speaking after the incident at the festival in Spain, Matisyahu said that he “never had the experience of anything like that, as a Jew or anything in my life.” Indeed, Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee decried the “bigotry and bias” inherently found in the initial boycott and subsequent protest. Others went further, calling the incident a harsh reminder of the endemic anti-Semitism within European society. It is difficult to dismiss the claim off hand. The challenge against Matisyahu, an artist who professes to not take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was grounded in one fact: he is Jewish.

It is also not an isolated incident of “bigotry” or “bias” within the music industry, whether the mainstream or more niche sectors. There are countless examples, from former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters’ vocal support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to British electronic duo Orbital including a graphic of a missile fluidly morphing into the Star of David on the screen behind. It is a troubling picture overall.

Yet one can also point to myriad counter-examples that tell a different story, one of inclusion and acceptance. Israeli-French singer/songwriter Yael Naim, most famous for the song “New Soul” and its use in a MacBook ad, has enjoyed widespread success in Europe. Within the more niche electronic music scene, Israeli-born and Berlin-based Moscoman has a residency at the hugely popular club, Salon zur wilden Renate, and his music is played (and revered) widely by others in the industry. In a world where anti-Semitic discrimination is so pervasive within society, surely such achievements would be more sparing, if not impossible.

An analogous paradigm exists when one examines the perceptions of Israel within the European political establishment. A perception of bias is routinely evident: whether it be the EU’s voting record at the United Nations or its inability to critique the Palestinians in European Council conclusions without also levying blame on Israel. It is undeniable that within the overall development of the anti-Israel bias in Europe, anti-Semitic voices and opinions play a role in its construction.

But to use anti-Semitism as a blanket characterisation of political motivation ignores countless examples to the contrary. Trade and cooperation between the EU and Israel continues to grow, with the latter now participating in the former’s Horizon 2020 initiative. During the 2014 Gaza war, the EU’s common position was, for the most part, supportive of Israeli actions against Hamas – waning only as the Palestinian death toll rose significantly. Political leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speak out forcefully against BDS. Again, if anti-Semitism were so endemic, such accomplishments and integration would seem unlikely.

So how does one explain the often-tolerated presence and occasional prominence of the vitriol and overt prejudice that contributes to that overall anti-Israel bias in Europe? The suggestion of a predominant, nascent anti-Semitism within Europe is impossible to quantify or prove with any degree of clarity. It doesn’t deny its existence: there are certainly individuals within all strands of the European political establishment whose criticism of Israel is rooted in hatred. But I would contend that while anti-Semitism is clear and present, and while the mainstream’s opposition to the growing prevalence of these hateful sentiments is often muted, there are reasons to believe that these voices are not reflective of Europe as a whole.

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Varys – His Riddle

PART 3 OF THE CHARACTER DISCUSSION OF VARYS

One of the central questions in the book is Varys’ riddle…George R.R. Martin

Varys is a figure of vital importance in A Song of Ice and Fire. He is key to both the political action of the series and its political wisdom.

The core of his political philosophy, if one can use that term, is encapsulated in a riddle. The riddle — which concerns the nature of power itself — first appears in Chapter 3 of A Clash of Kings, where it is posed to Tyrion Lannister. Varys has found Tyrion at a King’s Landing inn, where the latter is ensconced (secretly, he believes) with his mistress, Shae.

Before Varys takes leave of Tyrion and Shae, he poses the riddle: “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”.

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Varys – A Eunuch

PART 2 OF THE CHARACTER DISCUSSION OF VARYS

The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

One fact we learn early on about Lord Varys, and are reminded of frequently, is that he is a eunuch. His castration is one of the central features of his character.

Looking across the series, we see other examples of eunuchs, most notably in the Meereenese warrior, Strong Belwas, and the slave soldiers from Astapor, known as the Unsullied.

All of these characters are extraordinary in some way. Varys is one of the wisest characters in the series, the Unsullied some of the finest warriors. This connection between castration and talent is suggestive. G.R.R. Martin seems to be hinting that sexual desire is an impediment to the development of other kinds of human excellence.

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Varys – A Machiavellian Beast

Part 1 of the Character Discussion of Varys

A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that made him promise have been eliminated. And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good; but because they are wicked and do not observe faith with you, you also do not have to observe it with them. Nor does a prince ever lack legitimate causes to color his failure to observe faith.Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

Varys, the Master of Whisperers, is one of the most enigmatic characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. He is also one of the most self-aware. A major player in the action of the story, who usually operates behind the scenes, the author of the books has invested him with an enormous amount of political wisdom.

Varys, nicknamed The Spider, is originally from the Free City of Lys in faraway Essos. Over the course of time, he rose from his inauspicious start as an orphaned slave to achieve a great reputation as a spymaster. This, in turn, led King Aerys II Targaryen, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, to invite Varys to Westeros, into his employ there at King’s Landing, the capital.
Varys remained in place both as spymaster and a member of the small council, an elite group of advisors to the king, when House Baratheon led a rebellion and overthrew House Targaryen. And he remained again when House Lannister effectively took the throne.

His political maneuverings are so many and varied that it is almost impossible to keep them straight – yet they are consistently effective.

Just surviving so many regime changes is itself impressive. But Varys not only survived, he flourished. The deeper Westeros fell into political chaos, the more his political influence grew. With each new regime on a weaker footing than the last, his spy network became more and more indispensable even though his title, or lack thereof, remained the same. As Varys puts it to Tyrion Lannister in Chapter 8 of A Clash of Kings, “The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.”

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A Politics of Ice and Fire

By: Lewis Slawsky

There are many reasons that G.R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, has been such a tremendous popular and critical success. Here is just one reason, but a major one – A Song of Ice and Fire is an eminently political piece of literature.

Discussion is Coming!

Over the next few months, we are going to examine the political insights of A Song of Ice and Fire through a series of character studies. Join us!

Why character by character?

Find details, and all the articles in the series here.

The beating heart of the story is the seemingly endless number of political moves made by various parties as they seek power. This is the action that gives its name to the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones.

Now, A Song of Ice and Fire is not political in the sense of partisanship or ideology, although these things can indeed be found among the panoply of groups and individuals within the context of the books. This fact alone makes it a valuable work of literature, in these days of big party politics and entrenched partisan commitments. But A Song of Ice and Fire is political in the broader sense of politics – the series is concerned with how human beings choose to live together or how they are compelled to do so. It is concerned with questions of power: who rules, in what manner, on what basis, and what the effects of power are on both the rulers and the ruled.

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