Wednesday, 03 September 2014 00:00

Good Reads – From Lampedusa to Scotland

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Another week has flown away but not without two of E&M's editors sharing some articles that got them thinking about our continent. This time around, Edgar and Veronica have picked up some online pieces about the value of history and the aftershocks of an Italian earthquake, passing through the Scottish referendum, a law in favour of the rights of transsexuals and Europe's immigration debate.


Edgar, Baby editor




In one of the first tutorial sessions of my undergraduate history degree, I clearly remember a classmate nonchalantly reeling off George Santayana's famous quotation about the value of history: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The tutor was unimpressed. "You're lucky you didn't say that in your interview," he said. His point, reprised by many of my teachers throughout the next three years, was that history is not a crystal ball. If we gaze into the past we do not see the future; only the past.


At the time, these historians' strident insistence on the practical uselessness of their subject was a little deflating. Why were they devoting their lives to such a futile endeavour? They were clearly jaded, I thought, if not outright depressed. Only gradually did I realise that this warning against drawing lessons from history was a valuable lesson in itself. If history teaches us anything at all, it is how little we can control or even predict our own fate.



Adam Gopnik's article in the latest New Yorker is a brilliant expression of exactly that revelation. "The advantage of having a historical sense," he says, "is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists. What history generally 'teaches' is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it." We are at the mercy of forces beyond our control, and drastic, aggressive action will only stimulate those forces in unpredictable ways. As Gopnik puts it: "History, well read, is simply humility well told." It's a valuable reminder at a moment when conflict threatens in countless regions of the world and the air is thick with ominous references to historical episodes from Chamberlain’s appeasement to the "sleepwalkers" of 1914.


I don't think Gopnik is saying we should try to give up on making the world better. His argument seems mostly to apply to foreign policy and crisis management, and even in that arena he advocates "minimalism" rather than "nothingism". And, for the record, I personally believe that learning history has an intrinsic human value beyond the political warnings it provides. Still, this is a timely and thought-provoking piece – well worth a read.




Sticking to the subject of history, I've recently been reading Tony Judt's Postwar, a sweeping account of Europe since 1945. I've barely got to 1950 so far but it's already changed how I think about the continent in several ways. So I was interested to see a biographical essay about Judt’s life and ideas  this week.

This might seem like an obscure and leftfield subject for anyone who doesn't happen to be currently reading Judt's book; but the themes explored in this article are prescient whether or not you're familiar with his work. As the child of a left-wing Polish family fleeing from persecution, he spent his life grappling with questions of zionism and national identity. His socialism led him to believe in cosmopolitan values. But his early utopianism about Israel was inseparable from his own particular identity. In the end Judt became bitterly disillusioned by zionism. He ended his career attacking "identity politics" in academia and public affairs and calling for a "one-state solution" to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which dispensed with the idea of a Jewish state.


Judt's intellectual struggle is a fascinating insight into the intricacies of Jewish and Israeli identities. But it's also an illustration of a tension in modern European political thought that is relevant far beyond Israel. As Daniel Solomon says, "the biography of Judt is also the story of the political left: the imagination of the universal through the preservation of the provincial." Incidentally, everybody who thinks of themselves as a social democrat should read this transcript of a talk Tony Judt gave in 2009.




But that's more than enough academic navel-gazing for one day. While my final recommendation concerns an episode that is technically recent history, rest assured that it probably won't force you to re-evaluate your entire identity and ideology. It's simply an engrossing story, thoroughly researched and beautifully told.


The story is that of the 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy, which killed nearly 300 people, and the subsequent trial of the meteorologists who failed to predict it. I remember reading about the controversy when the scientists were convicted two years ago; but knowing how the story ended doesn't make this account any less gripping. And it raises genuinely interesting questions – not only about the relationship between science, the media and the general public, but also about the difficulty of talking about probability in any language at all, be it English, Italian or even mathematics.

Veronica, Sixth Sense editor





There's just two weeks to go before the referendum on Scottish independence. After a heated campaign that has involved all UK politicians and media representatives, voters are asked to head to the polls on 18 September to decide whether they want their land to be independent from the rest of the UK after some 307 years of union. Their choice will not only have a great impact on domestic economy, politics and the Scots' sense of belonging and national identity. It will also be relevant in the European context, as it has the potential to change the EU landscape as we know it now.


This article by Ivan Botoucharov pinpoints some ways the Scottish referendum may shake the current transnational order. If the Yes vote prevails, the UK will lose its most pro-European region, and that could possibly smooth the way for a Brexit. New trade agreements would have to be drafted as well as a new treaty to admit Scotland to the EU: tricky enough, since such a treaty would need to be backed by all EU current member states, including the spurned rest of the United Kingdom.


Among the nations of the UK, Scotland is the one that has always enjoyed most freedoms. Thanks to the devolution process, many powers have been transferred from London central government to the Scottish Parliament. Meanwhile Scottish media, in conjunction with a BBC service dedicated just to Scotland, have provided its citizens with separate and patriotic reporting. These facts got the Scots to reflect more on themselves and their attitudes towards England, enhancing their willingness of independence, boosting their sense of democracy through public decision and leading them to take part actively in the ongoing public debate on the referendum. This feature by Spiegel Online does a good job of documenting the ongoing trend, which sees the independence debate expand beyond a purely political stage. Real-life people such as a tank truck driver and a writer quoted by the author are taking actions for their future and that of their children, moved by deep, personal ideas rather than politics-driven arguments.


While, according to some of the latest polls, it is still hard to foresee the referendum's outcome with clarity, the choice often appears to be based on emotional reasons rather than pragmatic ones. In this touching post, a Scottish citizen describes how the dream he has been pursuing all his life is profoundly linked with childhood memories, everyday efforts and life choices. As for other pro-independence European movements, the Scottish choice, so important on a European scale, is indeed an emotional one, also partly based on historical backgrounds that transcend the concept of Europe, even if they are likely to affect it in the short run. 


Pour yourself a glass of whisky and grab a warm blanket before getting started.




Another summer is coming to an end and, once again, the Italian media has been focused on weather forecasts since June. Partly taking advantage of the allegedly summery weather, many boats have taken the sea from Africa, fully loaded with people risking their lives to land in Europe finally, the promised land. The debate about immigration and the many refugees arriving at the island of Lampedusa is evergreen: it still gets media attention, still has to be solved. Italian media reporting on the issue seems to be confined only to a political and economical stage, with politicians having their say, either promising to solve the problem if elected or blaming the current government for not being able to deal with the immigration emergency. In a country where international affairs don't get a lot of media attention unless they are massively important, it's difficult to rely on internal sources to get a full view of what's going on in Lampedusa. For instance, among the majority of mainstream domestic media, there is a crucial lack of good, accurate reporting that looks at the background reasons for migrating to Italy and gives voice to migrants themselves. So it was with great pleasure that I read this interview from The Guardian with a survivor who made it to Italy and this piece of graphic journalism about life conditions in La Chebba, Tunisia.


From these pieces, it becomes clear how it could all be reduced down to a war among the poor, with Africans and Italians trying to survive the economic crisis that is affecting them both. We find xenophobic arguments on the increase among Italian youngsters: as they are not able to find a job despite their studies, they blame immigrants for taking all state funds that could be used to insert young people in the job market. The only difference? Italy is part of the European Union, and its citizens are not escaping dictatorships or oppresive political regimes. A European Union, however, that is blamed for not being able to cope with the immigration problem in Italy as in other member states. This post from a student who spent her July in Lampedusa attending an Amnesty International work camp adds some interesting details to the debate and reminds us of the rights that, as European, we can fully enjoy. Perhaps we should focus on spreading these human rights that, too often, we don't even notice we have.


Some nice graphic journalism for a ride on the metro.




Once again Spain has proved itself to be one of the most progressive EU member states. This article from Cafebabel talks about a new law in Andalusia that protects the rights of transsexuals and has the very nice advantage of framing the topic in a European context. Kicking off from the Eurovision contest, it includes some eye-opening comparisons between EU member states when it comes to LGTB rights.


Suitable for a cheerful read, hasta luego chicos.

Last modified on Monday, 15 September 2014 19:40

If the Editorial team had an actual office it would have to stretch from the corner of Britain to the edges of Spain, Sweden, Germany and beyond. (With frequent trips to America too) .  The term 'from the editorial office' then, is very much a figure of speech. 

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