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Facts, Truth, Rationality, and the Rise of the Ultra-Right in the West

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]fter Donald Trump surprised everyone by beating the political odds and won the US presidency, and after Brexit, mainstream parties, media, and pollsters in the EU are struggling to make sense of the sudden rise and support for extreme right parties in just about every member nation of the EU.

To begin to understand the phenomenon we need to keep well in mind that we live in an era characterized as post-truth, or as post-factual; the era of “alternate facts” when 2 + 2 = whatever Big Brother says it is, and if you don’t agree with Big Brother, you are simply not a patriot.

Does that mean that people have suddenly lost the ability to think rationally about politics and political facts, the ability to derive their political views from rational objective considerations? Let’s see.

If we have learned anything from Machiavelli, the father of political science, it is that facts per se rarely play a primary role in politics. You may surmise that they lose out to feelings, to propaganda and outright lies, but that would be off the mark too. What they may lose to is a deep cognitive structure that draws on theories of knowledge and history and by which we interpret facts and attribute meaning to them. Facts by themselves are neutral. It is interpretation that gives them meaning.

There exists a glaring example of how this deep cognitive structures works. People about to undergo surgery are given an option to consent to or refuse the operation. To help them make a decision they are given two identical statistical facts but expressed in a slightly different way. When the patients are informed that they have a 90% survival chance in undergoing the operation, they overwhelmingly opt for the operation. On the other hand if they are informed of a 10% death risk, they overwhelmingly opt for not undergoing the operation.

What has changed? Nothing. The facts remain the same. But the frames are different: one foregrounds life, the other death. What governs the final decision are not the facts but the frames and their interpretations.

So, perhaps elections are won and lost not via purely factual arguments based on empirical scientific facts. They may be won by selling the right frame to the right audience. Trump hired an electoral consulting firm based in Cambridge, England which thought him to sell the right frame, never mind the facts, never mind the truth, to each individual audience. The interpretation changed from region to region. Moreover “alternate facts” were also utilized when found useful. After all, doesn’t the end justify any means, as per Machiavellian political science? Isn’t winning everything?

By setting the right frames against which facts are processed in the mind of voters, elections may be won. What did Hitler’s minister of propaganda Goebbels say? “Tell a lie often enough and people will believe it.” The frequency of the lie is in some way the deep background.

What may explain the French and German extreme-right success over mainstream parties is that they are promoting frames that interpret facts in favor of their political tenets and goals.

Let’s examine a concrete political event going on as we speak which may well determine the elections in Germany and France of 2017. What the extreme right has been very successful at, is the framing of war refugees as a huge threat to the EU, by portraying them as a veritable flood. They speak of tidal waves, streams, torrents, tsunami of refugees.

What the metaphor hides is the fact that the refugees are not tidal waves, but real people undergoing pain and suffering, people who, if anything, need compassion and protection. The metaphor transforms them from victims into a threat. If there are innocent victims, those are the individual European countries like Hungary, or France, or Germany. They are the helpless victims of a natural disaster.

The solution to such a natural disaster is not hard to fathom. When a flood threatens you stack up sandbags. Within this frame the reaction to the refugee problem is enforced border control, walls and fences galore, even gunfire as deterrence. They become primary moral imperatives of a protecting government.

The idea of proportionally distributing refugees among the 27 nations of the EU, begins to appear ludicrous. When a flood hits, you simply keep the water out, never mind how much water should go into each room of the house, never mind how did the flood come about. Floods just happen and the duty of survivors is to prevent the danger by all means, never mind human European solidarity. It’s everybody for themselves.

Another linguistic trick is that of branding the refugee problem as a crisis. There is a global shelter crisis, never mind that it is provoked by war and the dislocations it provokes. The refugees, in fact, are the crisis. Many politicians, media, citizens of the EU, knowingly or unknowingly, are caught in extreme ideological frames designed to serve an ultra-nationalistic authoritarian world view, a la Putin or a la Trump.

Make America great again, make Russia great again, make the UK great again, let’s go back to the good old days of glorious colonialism. Hurrah for White Supremacy. This is alarming extreme-right stuff and it is all concocted with words and language which frame the ideology. We are bound to hear a lot of those linguistic frames in the weeks preceding the elections in Germany and France. The possibility of a National Front and an Alternative for Germany win is in fact beginning to loom menacingly.

Undoubtedly, the extreme-right parties will attempt to win those elections by strategically promoting their own worldview in the mind of their fellow-citizens. They will of course use democratic means to eventually proceed to subvert democracy. Hitler and Mussolini proceeded similarly. They were both elected by adoring crowds.

We’ll be hearing a plethora of factual arguments, policy details, on both sides of the political spectrum, the people will be fooled once again; they will be distracted by the facts and their misguided interpretations, thus failing to focus on the values that created a progressive, compassionate, EU in the first place; thus will they be robbed of a peaceful future for themselves, their children and grandchildren.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Europe

Time to Tackle the Stigma Behind Wartime Rape

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Images: UN Women Kosovo

The youngest capital city in Europe, Pristina, is the ultimate hybrid of old and new: Ottoman-era architecture stands amongst communist paraphernalia, while Kosovars who lived through the bloodshed of the 20th century share family dinners with a generation of young people with their sights set on EU accession.

This month, the capital’s Kosovo Museum welcomed a new force for change; Colours of Our Soul, an exhibition of artwork from women who survived the sexual violence of the Yugoslav Wars, showcases the world as these women “wished it to be.”

Colours of Our Soul isn’t the first art installation to shine a light on the brutal sexual violence thousands of Kosovar victims suffered throughout the turmoil of the conflict which raged from 1988 to 1999. In 2015, Kosovo-born conceptual artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa transformed a local football pitch into a giant installation, draping 5,000 dresses over washing lines to commemorate survivors of sexual violence whose voices otherwise tend to go unheard. “I started questioning the silence, how we could not hear their voices during and after the war and thought about how to portray the women in contemporary art,” said Xhafa-Mripa at the time.

Victims, and their children, pressed into silence

The silence Xhafa-Mripa speaks of is the very real social stigma faced by survivors of sexual violence in the wake of brutal conflict. “I would go to communities, but everyone would say, ‘Nobody was raped here – why are you talking about it?’”, remarked Feride Rushiti, founder of the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT).

Today, KRCT has more than 400 clients— barely a scratch on the surface given that rape was used in Kosovo as an “instrument of war” as recently as two decades ago. Some 20,000 women and girls are thought to have been assaulted during the bloody conflict; the fact that the artists whose work is featured in the Colours of our Soul exhibition did not sign their work or openly attend the installation’s grand opening is a sign of how pervasive the stigma is which haunts Kosovar society to this day.

As acute as this stigma is for the women who were assaulted, it is far worse for the children born from rape, who have thus far been excluded from reparation measures and instead dismissed as “the enemy’s children.” In 2014, the Kosovar parliament passed a law recognising the victim status of survivors, entitling them to a pension of up to 220 euros per month. Their children, however, many of whom were murdered or abandoned in the face of community pressure, are barely acknowledged in Kosovar society and have become a generation of young adults who have inherited the bulk of their country’s dark burden.

A global problem

It’s a brutal stigma which affects children born of wartime rape all over the world. The Lai Dai Han, born to Vietnamese mothers raped by South Korean soldiers, have struggled for years to find acceptance in the face of a society that views them as dirty reminders of a war it would rather forget. The South Korean government has yet to heed any calls for formal recognition of sexual violence at the hands of Korean troops, let alone issue a public— and long-awaited— apology to the Lai Dai Han or their mothers.

In many cases, as in the case of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence, the very existence of children born from rape has often been used as a brutal weapon by government forces and militants alike. Official estimates indicate that a mammoth 200,000 to 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani military and the supporting Bihari, Bengali Razakar and al-Badr militias in the early 1970s. The children fathered, at gunpoint, by Pakistani men were intended to help eliminate Bengali nationhood.

Their surviving mothers are now known as “Birangana”, or “brave female soldier,” though the accolade means little in the face of a lifetime of ostracization and alienation. “I was married when the soldiers took me to their tents to rape me for several days and would drop me back home. This happened several times,” one so-called Birangana explained, “So, my husband left me with my son and we just managed to exist.”

No end in sight

Unfortunately, this barbaric tactic of rape and forced impregnation is one that is still being used in genocides to this day. The subjugation of the Rohingya people, for example, which culminated in a murderous crackdown last year by Myanmar’s military, means an estimated 48,000 women will give birth in refugee camps this year alone. Barring a major societal shift, the children they bear will suffer ostracization similar to that seen in Kosovo, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Initiatives like the Colours of Our Soul installation in Pristina are not only central in helping wartime rape survivors to heal, but also play a vital role in cutting through the destructive stigma for violated women and their children. Even so, if the number of women who submitted their paintings anonymously is anything to go by, true rehabilitation is a long way ahead.

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EU–South Africa Summit: Strengthening the strategic partnership

MD Staff

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At the 7th European Union–South Africa Summit held in Brussels Leaders agreed on a number of steps to reinforce bilateral and regional relations, focusing on the implementation of the EU-South Africa Strategic Partnership. This includes economic and trade cooperation and pursuing the improvement of business climate and opportunities for investment and job creation which are of mutual interest.

Leaders also discussed common global challenges, such as climate change, migration, human rights, committing to pursue close cooperation both at bilateral level and on the global stage. A number of foreign and security policy issues, including building and consolidating peace, security and democracy in the African continent and at multilateral level were also raised. Leaders finally committed to work towards a prompt resolution of trade impediments affecting smooth trade flows.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, represented the European Union at the Summit. South Africa was represented by its President, Cyril Ramaphosa. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Jyrki Katainen and Commissioner for trade Cecilia Malmström also participated, alongside several Ministers from South Africa.

President Juncker said: “The European Union, for the South African nation, is a very important trade partner. We are convinced that as a result of today’s meeting we will find a common understanding on the open trade issues. South Africa and Africa are very important partners for the European Union when it comes to climate change, when it comes to multilateralism. It is in the interest of the two parties – South Africa and the European Union – to invest more. It will be done.” A Joint Summit Statement issued by the Leaders outlines amongst others commitment to:

Advance multilateralism and rules based governance

Leaders recommitted to work together to support multilateralism, democracy and the rules-based global order, in particular at the United Nations and global trade fora. South Africa’s upcoming term as an elected member of the United Nations Security Council in 2019-2020 was recognised as an opportunity to enhance cooperation on peace and security. As part of their commitment to stronger global governance, Leaders stressed their support to the process of UN reform, including efforts on the comprehensive reform of the UN Security Council and the revitalisation of the work of the General Assembly. Leaders reiterated their determination to promote free, fair and inclusive trade and the rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organisation at its core and serving the interest of all its Members.

Bilateral cooperation

Leaders agreed to step up collaboration in key areas such as climate change, natural resources, science and technology, research and innovation, employment, education and training including digital skills, health, energy, macro-economic policies, human rights and peace and security. The EU and South Africa will, amongst others, explore the opportunities provided by the External Investment Plan. Linked to this, Leaders committed to exploring opportunities for investment, technical assistance including project preparation, and the improvement of business and investment climates to promote sustainable development. Leaders welcomed the conclusion and provisional implementation in 2016 of the EU-Southern African Development Community (SADC) – Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).

Leaders also committed to find mutually acceptable solutions to impediments to trade in agriculture, agri-food and manufactured goods. They agreed to work towards a prompt resolution of these impediments.

Regional cooperation

Leaders welcomed the new Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs put forward by the European Commission. They exchanged views on foreign and security policy issues, addressed a number of pressing situations in the neighbourhoods of both the EU and South Africa, and welcomed each other’s contribution to fostering peace and security in their respective regions. Leaders agreed to explore opportunities to enhance cooperation on peace and security, conflict prevention and mediation.

Leaders confirmed common resolve to reform the future relationship between the EU and the countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States. To this end they are looking forward to the successful conclusion of negotiations for a post-Cotonou Partnership Agreement, that will contribute to attaining the goals of both the United Nations 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the long-term vision for African continent – Agenda 2063.

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Macron so far has augmented French isolation

Mohammad Ghaderi

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French President Emmanuel Macron has recently criticized the unilateral pullout of the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but at the same time expressed pleasure that Washington has allowed France and the other JCPOA signatories to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.

In an exclusive interview with the CNN, Macron said that he has “a very direct relationship” with Trump. “Trump is a person who has tried to fulfill his electoral promises, as I also try to fulfill my promises, and I respect the action that Trump made in this regard. But I think we can follow things better, due to our personal relationship and talks. For instance, Trump has decided to withdraw from the Iran pact, but at the end, he showed respect for the signatories’ decision to remain in the JCPOA.”

There are some key points in Macron’s remarks:

First, in 2017, the French were the first of the European signatories to try to change the JCPOA. They tried to force Iran to accept the following conditions: Inspection of military sites, application of the overtime limitation on nuclear activities, limiting regional activities, including missile capabilities within the framework of the JCPOA.

Macron had already made commitments to President Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push Iran to accept the additional protocols to the deal, and he pushed to make it happen before Trump left the JCPOA.

Second, after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, although France expressed regret, they had secret negotiations with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the JCPOA.

The result of the undisclosed talks was deliberate delay on the part of the European authorities in providing a final package to keep the Iran deal alive. In other words, after the US unilaterally left the JCPOA, the French have been sloppy and maybe somewhat insincere about making the practical moves to ensure it would be saved.

Third, France has emphasized the need to strengthen their multilateralism in the international system and has become one of the pieces of the puzzle that completes the strategic posture of the Trump Administration in the West Asia region.

Obviously, French double standards have irritated European politicians, many of whom have disagreed with the contradictory games of French authorities towards the US and issues of multilateralism in the international community. Also, France’s isolation and its strategic leverage in the political arena has grown since the days of Sarkozy and Hollande. Some analysts thought that Macron and fresh policies would stop this trend, but it has not occurred.

First published in our partner MNA

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