July 26, 2004

Habermas the conservative?

I'm glad that Sally Thomason is in Hamburg, because I need help. I've just gotten a nice note from Germany, but the more I think about it, the more confused I get. Visiting the University of Hamburg, Sally is in a good position to do some linguistic anthropology to map out the intellectual territory that I'm lost in.

Here's the note:

I am the owner webmaster of kerneuropa.de. I noticed you mentioned my website in your blog on Hambermas, though you mentioned you were not sure whether our site has anything to to with the kerneuropa debate started by Habermas and others. Some friends and I secured the domain because we completly disagree with the whole notion of a European core that conservatives want to create: an idea that has unfortunately been endorsed by some German intellectuals. We wanted to counter this idea with a weblog on European Politics and Sports. Therefore, we spent most of June and July on the Euro 2004. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for noticing us, since you were our #2 referrer url (only beaten by google).

Best regards,

Jan Leidecker

[hyperlinks added]

I wish Mr. Leidecker and his associates well. At least I think I do. How can you not like a site that has posts on sports entitled "Portugal wird Europas Meister" [ translate] and "Latvia, oder die Band auf der Titanic spielte auch bis zum Schluß" [ translate]?

But the thing is, I have to confess that I find European intellectual politics baffling, and so I'm not completely sure what I'm supporting here. Is Habermas being viewed as a conservative? or is he just one of the German intellectuals who have unfortunately endorsed a conservative initiative? Are "conservatives" and "German intellectuals" disjoint sets of people, who occasionally make alliances for convenience? Is the kerneuropa development that motivated Leidecker to get started the same Habermas statement that I blogged about, or something else? Is the idea of "core Europe" being rejected because of opposition to all regional identity politics, or because of support for more local regional identity politics?

Let me remind American readers (and any others who may be puzzled) of what we're talking about. As Nader Vossoughian put it, introducing his January 2004 interview with Richard Wolin:

On May 31, 2003, philosophers Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas published a joint statement in Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and France's La Liberation, calling for the formulation of a common European foreign policy in order to "balance out" US global hegemony. A greater show of solidarity between the members of "Kerneuropa" or "core Europe," they contend, and the empowerment of intergovernmental organizations like the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF, is the only way to contain (and perhaps combat) the recent "pre-emptive" foreign policy initiatives of the United States.

So is this the "European core that some conservatives want to create"? or just evidence that the "idea ... has unfortunately been endorsed by some German intellectuals"? What does "conservative" mean in this connection? Is it the old meaning of "someone who wants to prevent change", or the new meaning of "someone who wants to change things"? Or one of the many other current meanings, such as "someone who generally dislikes government intervention", or "someone who supports the wealthy and powerful"?

Mr. Leidecker has kindly written to me in English rather than in German, so perhaps he has tried to translate some European political terminology into its American equivalent. Another piece of evidence here is that kerneuropa.de links to Daily Kos and politics1. If so, I'm afraid that the translation didn't work. In the US these days, "conservatism" spreads its tent widely, over many values of many social and ideological variables, but I don't think you could stretch it to cover Habermas.

Of course, I'm in no position to complain about the irrationality of European politics, being myself a citizen of a country in which Ralph Nader has been variously allied with Pat Buchanan, Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani, and the Oregon Republican Party. But the sad fact is that politicians -- and other humans -- are like words. Their meanings shift in ways that make local sense but combine over time to create bizarre large-scale trajectories. And some politicians, like some words, are what Roman Jakobson called "shifters" -- their meanings involve contextual references that land on completely different things on different occasions. Nationalists, for instance.

Anyhow, I look forward to more information, in the naive hope that it will make me less rather than more confused.

[For what little it's worth, the pattern {Habermas conservative} gets 14,500 Google hits (though many are things like "Habermas criticizes the conservative nature of ..."), while {Habermas liberal} gets 38,300.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 26, 2004 10:20 AM