The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing worth reading like never before

I began to read Doris Lessing`s novels late, when she was awarded in 2007 as Literature Nobel Laureat. Today she is among my favourite writers.  The Grass is Singing, The Golden Notebook,  Shikasta , Alfred and Emily and The Good Terrorist are great pieces of literature. The latter I like the most and I think it is very topical today.

The title sounds like a oxymoron. It’s not a book with a political statement. It’s about a certain kind of political person, a kind of self-styled revolutionary that can only be produced by affluent societies. There’s a great deal of playacting that I don’t think you’d find in extreme left revolutionaries in societies where they have an immediate challenge.
There is nothing exotic about The Good Terrorist. It is a novel in unsparing close-up, featuring a cast of damaged and disaffected characters, living in squalor in a very real London.
So to begin with I was fascinated by The Good Terrorist because it took a domestic situation and pushed it to an extreme. Lessing is exploring the territory where the personal becomes political (and when I understood that, I realised that it is indeed a sister book to her earlier novels, to books such as The Grass is Singing, where the evils of a political system, apartheid, are exposed through close examination of individual lives). In The Good Terrorist she shows us the point where the heaped-up disappointments and hopes and contradictions of individual lives coalesce into wilfully murderous public action.

The plot is simple.. Alice is a founding member of the Communist Centre Union, a leftwing group committed to revolutionary action. The comrades are living in filth in a house scheduled for demolition. At first, suspense centres on the house: will Alice be able to rid it of gallons of raw sewage, to hack cement out of the toilet, to repel the police, to clear the rubbish and restore water and electricity, and prevent major fallouts between antagonistic members of the household, before the council meeting that must decide its fate? And as this race against time accelerates, other questions are set ticking; why is Alice so obsessed with creating a home? Why does she dote on the odious Jasper? How will the IRA react to Bert and Jasper’s naive offer of assistance? Will the apolitical Jim, who was the first to move into the derelict house and welcomed all comers, get thrown out? Who are the mysterious comrades next door, and are they really burying explosives in the garden?
The key to Alice’s character is her perverted relationship with her mother. Alice’s need to go to any lengths to see her comrades eating happily together around the big kitchen table is motherly. Her protectiveness of deadly Jasper is motherly, and she even acknowledges that while she is with him she can never have a child. When she hugs him it is as though she held a wraith, something cold and wailing, a lost child. When Jim is about to start his new job, Alice thought she was rather like a mother, making sure a child had eaten before going off to school. In the final confrontation between Alice and her mother, Dorothy, Dorothy’s cruelest retort is to reveal the similarity between them: „I thought … I won’t have Alice stuck in my position, no qualifications for anything. But it turned out you spend your life exactly as I did. Cooking and nannying for other people. An all-purpose female drudge.“
Motherhood here is terrible: for poor Dorothy, giving and giving to her crazily selfish daughter, until she is reduced to bleak poverty. For Alice, giving and giving (financially and emotionally) to cruel Jasper, who occasionally rewards her with a crumb of love – permission to put her sleeping bag along the same wall as his. The theme is echoed in the lesbian relationship between Roberta, comforting mother figure, and Faye, the pretty, naughty child who harms Roberta in the most effective way she can, by blowing herself up. Motherhood is presented as an obsessive need to love and protect those who seem weaker and less adequate than yourself, and yet who reject and hurt you. Alice’s motherliness is even applied to the act of terror itself; after the bomb has exploded she pities those who don’t understand the necessity for the outrage. „Alice sat with tears in her eyes, thinking, Poor things, poor things, they simply don’t understand! – as if she had her arms around all the poor silly ordinary people in the world.“

The media image of a terrorist is shark-like in its simplicity – which is why it’s terrifying: the notion of a person so driven by one idea, that he or she can sacrifice everything else, even love of life itself, to that single idea is appalling.
Yet such shark-people are rare, as Lessing shows us; her terrorists are contaminated by the muddle of being human, have parents they rebel against, have suffered injustices, have maternal impulses and physical needs, and a burning need for identity and recognition. This is not to suggest for a moment that Lessing demands sympathy for her characters; this is no touchy-feely book to help us understand the poor things who are driven to such extremes. It is a witty and furious book, angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without. It shows us people who commit an evil act and it shows how that evil springs out of our own society. It connects us to it, while condemning it. It makes any kind of complacency impossible.

I think in our days this novel is more than ever worth reading.


Die Digitalisierung und die Zauberlehrlinge

Wir leben in einer Zeit, in der alles schneller abläuft als jemals zuvor. Entwicklungen, die früher Jahrhunderte gedauert hätten, spielen sich in Jahren oder Jahrzehnten ab. Die Digitalisierung beschleunigt sich, immer mehr ist von künstlicher Intelligenz die Rede. Algorithmen bestimmen zunehmend unseren Alltag.

Angesichts dieser Entwicklung fällt mir manchmal Goethes Ballade vom Zauberlehrling ein. Er handelt in Selbstüberschätzung  getrieben  von Wissens- und Machtgier, unterschätzt aber die Gefährlichkeit, die mit seinem Handeln verbunden ist und muss schließlich feststellen “ die Not ist groß! Die ich rief, die Geister wird ich nun nicht los.“

Ich weiß, der Fortschritt lässt sich nicht aufhalten und ich bin wahrhaftig alles andere als ein Maschinenstürmer. Aber ich frage mich, welche Grundparadigmen herrschen bei dieser Entwicklung zur Zeit vor. Was sind die Vorgaben der Algorithmen, die  demnächst unser Leben bestimmen? Mehr Umsatz? mehr Wachstum? Profitoptimierung? Und wo bleibt der Mensch?

Wenn nicht sichergestellt ist, dass der Mensch Hauptzweck und nicht ein Mittel zum Erreichen der Ziele ist, wird uns die Entwicklung entgleiten. Es ist viel von Digitalisierung die Rede und dass wir die Entwicklung nicht verschlafen dürfen. Das ist sicher richtig. Aber wenn ich mich umschaue, sehe ich viele Zauberlehrlinge, aber keinen Hexenmeister.

Überlassen wir nicht zu viel den Maschinen!
Sapere aude! Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!

(Immanuel Kant)



A Tragicomedy Called Brexit

As the German writer and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing noted, “seriousness stimulates laughter, and pain pleasure.” Tragicomedy allows works of literature to explore depths and paradoxes of human experience unavailable to strict comedies and tragedies.

Brexit seems to be a tragicomedy, but it isn`t a peace of literature, it`s political reality.
The main characters: a PM Cameron, who promised an in-or-out of the EU referendum back in 2013, if the Conservatives won the General Election, despite the fact that EU matters were considered rather unimportant by voters at that time.
He promised this would happen by 2017 – an arbitrary date set to appease his party, not with any attention what was happening in the EU . A dog whistle campaign and the inherent unfairness of First Past the Post won Cameron the election in 2015, and suddenly he had to deliver on the referendum he never wanted but gave his party to keep them happy.
In 2016 there was a referendum Remain or Leave. Everybody knew the meaning of Remain, but nobody did really know what Leave was standing for. UK like Norway not in the EU but still a part of the European Economic Area? UK not in the the EEA but as Switzerland having a comparable status through bilateral contracts? UK a similar relationship to EU as perhaps Canada? Being totally separated from EU without any contracts?  A really unclear alternative.

Now some Brexit figureheads enter the stage as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove. They told the people Brexit vote meant national liberation, much more money for NHS and the solution for all immigration problems.

Many people apparently  believed them. When I asked a person, who`d voted for Brexit, why he did so, I got the answer: “ too many brown faces here“ „brown faces“ ?? and EU ? People from Poland, Germany or other EU countries usually don`t  have brown faces and the UK never has been within the Schengen Area. The problems this Brexit voter perceived never had to do with EU. But nevertheless the nationalist and xenophobic propaganda was successful. 52% voted for Brexit.

And now? If you had expected Nigel Farage would lead Ukip to ensure the promised great days or Boris Johnson would head for PM to implement all promises given before vote, you were wrong. These guys shied away from responsibility. Theresa May a former Remain supporter became PM.

You think she would make an effort to keep the damage small, to make clear, what Brexit does mean and perhaps introduce a soft Brexit?

Not even close. She announces “ Brexit means Brexit“  , battles every way to avoid any Brexit debate in Parliament, fighting in the courts to try to prevent Parliament having a vote on the Brexit. She rules out the Norway model, the Canada model. More than 20 months after the vote she lets in the dark, what Leave does mean.

Theresa May surely would be able to negotiate a soft Brexit. But she is a prisoner of the hardliner faction of the Tories. Staying in office and avoiding new election seems to have highest priority above all else.

All this looks like a tragicomedy. But unfortunately it`s bitter reality and it has effects on the future of the UK and Europe.



Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes

Light and Transient Causes is the title of a book I read the other day. It`s written by by Mel Hawkins, both an exciting and entertaining novel and at the same time reading material that`s worth to think about. Mel writes about something, what could really happen in near future. In the year 202X horrific acts of terrorism, unprecedented natural disasters and an economic collapse happen. The election of an authoritarian outsider as President shocks people at home and abroad. The new President moves quickly to criticize and invoke sanctions on the nation’s adversaries; verbally attacks the judicial and legislative branches of the government, undermining the „separation of powers;“ suspends civil liberties at home; takes control of the press, establish military governments in Indiana and other states, and target religious and racial minorities. A divided nation, the president elected by people who wanted a radical change begins to persecute Jews and black Americans on a mass scale. Free press is suppressed. But resistance forms. The story takes place in Indianapolis in the year 202X. Pure science fiction? Unfortunately I wouldn`t be too sure.

The book made me think. There are basically 3 forms of government. Liberal democracies as in the US or Germany, pure dictatorships as in China or Saudi Arabia and forms of government, that call themselves democratic but lack civil liberty and separation of powers, as Turkey or Russia. I wouldn`t call them democracies, even if it`s probably true that the governments are supported by a majority of the people. The transitions from one kind of government to and other are not always clear and concise for the contemporaries. Hitler came to power in a constitutional way, then he used an (possibly pretended)  arson attack against German Reichstag to override Civil Rights, Turkey was a real democracy till Erdogan saw a military coup attempt as a „present of God“ to establish an authoritarian rule. Many people thought both times a national emergency would justify drastic measures.

„and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” In fact, history shows that people are more likely to put up with unbearable evil–they even get used to it, than they are to correct the problem.

The people in Germany 1933 and the people in Turkey 2016 didn`t recognize the right time to resist and correct the problem. I`m not sure, what will happen within the next few years in the USA. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explained in their book „How Democracies Die“ why they are worried about American democracy. If their fear will come true, I hope the people of the oldest democracy in modern times will know the right time to resist.




Zuwanderung und Integration

Deutschland ist seit mehr als 50 Jahren ein Einwanderungsland, auch wenn konservative Politiker ihrer Wählerklientel diese Wahrheit oft nicht zumuten möchten. Und ohne Zweifel brauchen wir auch Zuwanderung, sonst haben wir irgendwann einen „Raum ohne Volk“ , wie es Deniz Yücel einmal zugespitzt ausdrückte und weshalb ihn Rechtsextreme so sehr hassen.

Natürlich darf es dabei keinen Kontrollverlust geben, wie wir es leider 2015 erlebt haben, als alle Politiker, die sich dramatisch zuspitzende Entwicklung verschlafen hatten. Es ist auch sicher eine Fehleinschätzung zu glauben, eine kontrollierte Migration würde uns in erster Linie Zuwanderung aus Ländern wie Norwegen bringen (bei solchen Ländern sieht die Migrationsbilanz eher umgekehrt aus), sondern sie wird vor allem aus Ländern kommen, die Trump und Gesinnungsgenossen als „shithole countries“  bezeichnen.

Auch wäre es eine Illusion zu glauben, Integration bei einer größeren Zuwanderung sei ein Selbstläufer, sie bringe keine großen Probleme mit  und man müsse nicht viel dafür tun. Es mag Leute geben, die leben fern von sozialen Brennpunkten, – Spitzenpolitiker gehören dazu – die haben keine reale Vorstellung von solchen Problemen. Integration muss von vielen Maßnahmen begleitet werden, dazu gehören Sozial- und Jugendarbeit, ausreichend sozialer Wohnungsbau ( für alt-eingesessene Bürger wie Zuwanderer) und eine sinnvolle Schulpolitik. Und dafür muss man natürlich eine entsprechende Menge Geld ausgeben. Wenn die Politik das wirklich begriffen hätte, dann wäre statt eines Heimatministeriums wahrscheinlich ein Integrations-Ministerium eingerichtet worden.

Vor allem aber, Integration beginnt in den Köpfen. Ich will nicht bestreiten, dass bei vielen Menschen ein entsprechender Denkprozess bereits statt gefunden hat. Aber es gibt auch anderes. Fragen Sie doch mal einen Menschen, der sich bei entsprechender Qualifikation für einen attraktiven Job bewirbt, aber dessen Name vielleicht darauf hinweist, dass er aus einem Land wie Pakistan stammt. Oder wie reagieren deutsche Eltern, wenn Ihre Kinder Ihnen einen türkischen Lebenspartner vorstellen? Umgekehrt besteht übrigens ein ähnliches Problem.

Ich glaube, es liegt noch viel Arbeit und ein weiter Weg vor uns. Aber dieser Weg muss gegangen werden. Integration gehört zu den entscheidenden Fragen unserer Zeit. Stellen Sie sich bitte vor, wir kommen in einigen Jahren bei ungelösten Integrationsproblemen in eine – meiner Meinung nach nicht unwahrscheinliche – Finanz und Wirtschaftskrise. Das wäre eine gefährliche Situation und die Stunde der Extremisten aller Richtungen. Die Aufgabe der Integration muss mit hoher Priorität angefasst werden. Noch kein Problem hat sich dadurch gelöst, dass es ignoriert oder schön geredet wird.

Clash Of Cultures Or Clash Of Ignorance

I read the other day an article in The Nation written in October 2001 by Edward W. Said. It seems to me as relevant to day as never. Edward W. Said ( 1953-2003) was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies, Palestinian American born in Mandatory Palestine. He  was a citizen of the United States by way of his father, a U.S. Army veteran.
Educated in the Western canon, at British and American schools, Said applied his education and bi-cultural perspective to illuminating the gaps of cultural and political understanding between the West and the world of Middle east.

Many people want to persuade us today, there were unbridgeable opposites between Western world and the world of Islam. The one the world of modernity, the other the world of backwardness, even the Empire of the Good against Empire of Evil. An ideology of fear and hate is sown this way.  It`s comparable the ideology of cold war, the basic paradigm the West versus the rest remains unchanged.

Primitive passions are ignited in ways that give the lie to a fortified boundary not only between „West“ and „Islam“ but also between past and present, us and them, to say nothing of the very concepts of identity and nationality about which there is unending disagreement and debate. A unilateral decision is made to draw lines in the sand, to undertake crusades, to oppose their evil with our good, to extirpate terrorism.

Instead of this we must learn to distinguish between Islam and  the mutilations of Islam by absolutists and fanatical tyrants whose obsession with regulating personal behavior promotes an Islamic order reduced to a penal code, stripped of its humanism, aesthetics, intellectual quests, and spiritual devotion.

It`s not a line between the West and the Islamic word, there`re authoritarian and backward-facing tendencies in the West too. We all are- as Said writes – „stranded in the middle of the ford, between the deep waters of tradition and modernity and we are all swimming in those waters, Westerners and Muslims and others alike. And since the waters are part of the ocean of history, trying to plow or divide them with barriers is futile. These are tense times, but it is better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis. „The Clash of Civilizations“ thesis is a gimmick like „The War of the Worlds,“ better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.“

We live in one world and „we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools“ ( Matin Luther King).

Leitkultur ! ?

Ich höre in diesen Tagen wieder öfter das Wort Leitkultur, in Diskussionen auf der Straße wie in politischen Aschermittwochsreden.  Wenn ich frage, was denn jetzt unsere Leitkultur ausmachen soll, erhalte ich die verschiedensten Antworten.

„St. Martin und Weihnachtsbaum sind Symbole unserer christlichen Kultur,“ höre ich. Na ja, den St.Martinszug des Kindergartens in der Nachbarschaft finde ich gut und ein Christbaum steht bei uns auch zu Weihnachten im Wohnzimmer. Aber das soll wesentlicher Kern einer Leitkultur sein?

Andere tönen großspurig von der „Tradition und Kultur des christlichen Abendlandes“. Ich habe mich fast mein Leben lang mit Kultur beschäftigt, aber die Frage, wie denn jetzt die Tradition und Kultur des christlichen Abendlands zu definieren sind, vermag  ich nicht eindeutig zu beantworten. Ich weiß nur, sauber abgegrenzte Kulturen hat es in der Geschichte nie gegeben und Kulturen sind auch dem Wandel unterlegen. Zur Kultur des mittelalterlichen Abendlandes gehörte unter anderem auch, dass Ketzer auf dem Scheiterhaufen verbrannt wurden. Und diese kulturelle Tradition haben wir ja wohl hoffentlich überwunden.

Wenn ich nach den Wurzeln meiner Leitkultur, oder sagen wir besser meiner Leitwerte, gefragt werde, dann kann ich eher die großen Denker der Aufklärung nennen. Mir fallen Namen ein wie Jean Jacques Rousseau , Voltaire, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing oder David Hume. Und damit sind wir auch bei der Tatsache, dass die Toleranz, die im weitgehend christlichen Europa heute glücklicherweise – muss ich sagen noch? – herrscht, nicht der christlichen Religion immanent ist, sondern ihr abgetrotzt wurde.

Die Werte der Aufklärung, die Werte der französischen Revolution, das sind meine Leitwerte. Und ich bin bereit diese zu verteidigen, gegen Fanatiker und Hohlköpfe jeder Art, zu welcher Religion  sie sich auch immer bekennen mögen.