Culture gap?

New fuel for those (like me) who see little point in pleas for one common language in Europe, to replace the current 20 which institutions like the European Parliament now have to work with. Having a common language does not seem to do much for mutual understanding if the cultures are notably different. Take this column in the Guardian:

On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod’s law dictates he’ll probably win, thereby disproving the existence of God once and for all. The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr – where are you now that we need you?

and compare reactions from the UK (Europhobia):

Of course, The Guardian is well aware that it has a substantial American readership via the internet. It brags about it often enough. Its Operation Clark County articles were much noted and the coverage in the paper entirely predictable (it’s fairly obvious that they always wanted the idiot email responses: it helps fill up the paper printing them). The Manchester Guardian left its provincial moorings behind in the wake of the Suez Crisis to become metropolitan. Now another criminally stupid foreign adventure – one actually far worse than Suez – is turning the paper cosmopolitan.

and the 330 (so far) reactions on a Bush supporting blog in the US:

Guardian Calls for Bush to Be Assassinated. Now that the Guardian’s attempt to influence our election has been a miserable failure, they’ve moved on-to advocating assassination[…]

The Guardian column seems to have upset one esteemed non-Bush Englishman blogging in the US (Andrew Sullivan) as well:

This kind of malicious, not-even-clever cant needs to be exposed and condemned. But the last thing it is is surprising. The editor should apologize. What on earth was he thinking? They’d never call for the assassination of the leader of Hamas. They’d condemn it if it happened. But the leader of the greatest democracy on earth? They have lost what minds they ever had.

It reminds me of the discussion raging after the murder of populist politician Fortuyn in the Netherlands, when right-wingers kept arguing that “the bullet came from the left”. I did not think it did as none of his political opponents ever said anything near it, although it is true that they conjured up a few too many comparisons with the rise of nazism in the 1930s. Mr Fortuyn’s own libertarian values had indeed very little in common with the nazis. But then again, he was not entirely innocent either of the sometimes rather ugly forces he unleashed, and in my opinion he seriously overestimated his own powers to keep them under control. The episode has taught me once and for all that, contrary to Fortuyn’s own paradigm, “just say what you think” does not apply in politics. On the contrary, the more influence a politician (or any other public figure) has on what people think, the more responsibility he has to think very carefully about the effects before he says something.

This Guardian thing, however, is not a serious political essay or speech but a column in a left-wing newspaper for intellectuals, with tongue so firmly in cheek that it almost hurts. Is irony really such a difficult concept?

2 Responses to “Culture gap?”

  1. Each era creates its own taboos Says:

    I don’t really agree.
    You refer yourself to the Fortuyn assassination in Holland, a year ago there was the Lindh assassination in Sweden, and just a few days ago the Van Gogh murder). All cases show it takes only one madman…

    People with voice and influence, whether they are politicians, writers or pop artists, should realize their words can be interpreted in an awful lot of ways when magnified and echoed through the loudspeakers of the media. They should realize their responsibility and show restraint – and referral to murder or violence, be it even in irony, is simply a line not to be crossed.
    (So I do approve for example the Oslo police action last week).

  2. eulogist Says:

    So we agree on the principles then, the difference being one of degrees. I think it is impossible to set clear rules for this; the only way to judge is on a case-by-case basis (I know this can be hard to accept for some ;)). The thing to consider is the most likely effect of what is said. Therefore, context matters a lot. In my view, it does make a difference whether you say “kill Bush” on an islamist website frequented by potential Mohammed Attas, on that of the Guardian frequented by potential, er, Clare Shorts, or on a website like that Norwegian one, frequented by radical greenies. As I see it, the first case would be a definite nono, the second a definite yesyes, and the third a maybebetternotbutImnotsure.

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