In America we tend to have a division of labor. The university professors are dry and dusty academics. Jim Lehrer brings them on to his show, and they pull their beards and make well-considered comments about Afghan or Kurdish or Shi’ite history and its possible relevance to present affairs. Philosophers are entirely invisible.
Not so Europe. Forget David Brooks and Tom Oliphantin Paris the professors are on TV broadly commenting on current events. Academic nomad and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek is very much in this European tradition. He is a Slovenian idea guy. True to his role as a European intellectual, he puts mere punditry into the shade.
A recent intervention on current events begins in high dudgeon over the United States’ invasion of Iraq, slides directly into a meditation on “the return of the repressed” in the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Freud lives!), only to settle on his main interest“the case of today’s Turkey,” which, it turns out, is not his main interest at all. But it gets him where he wants to go.
Zizek makes the plausible observation that “the problem of Europe, the perplexity of European Union with regard to what to do with Turkey, is not about Turkey as such, but the confusion about what is Europe itself.” Turkey is not the only symptom of cultural uncertainty. “The impasse with the European Constitution is a sign that the European project is now in search of its identity.”
Why the confusion, why the impasse? “The conflict about Europe,” Zizek writes, “is usually portrayed as one between Eurocentric Christians hardliners who want to keep out countries like Turkey and liberal multiculturalists who want to open the doors of the European Union much more widely today, to Turkey and beyond.” In other words, it’s the Doberman pope guarding the marches of Christendom.
Yet Zizek wonders, “What if this conflict is the wrong one?” A good question. His answer: “Today, Poland has the distinction of the first Western Country in which the anti-modernist backlash has won, effectively emerging as a hegemonic force. Calls for the total ban on abortion, anti-Communist ‘lustration,’ the exclusion of Darwinian theory from primary and secondary education, up to the bizarre idea to abolish the post of the President of the Republic and proclaim Jesus Christ the eternal King of Polandthese coming together into an all-encompassing proposal to enact a clear break and constitute a new Polish Republic unambiguously based on anti-modernist Christian values.” If we adjust modestly for differences in circumstance, the caricature sounds pretty much like the typical New York Times reader’s opinion of Kansas.
Zizek presses forward: “The lesson is clear: Fundamentalist populism is filling the void created by the absence of a Leftist dream. Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous statement about the Old and the New Europe is acquiring a new unexpected reality. The emerging contours of the ‘new’ Europe of the majority post-Communist countries (Poland, Baltic countries, Romania, Hungary) are defined by Christian populist fundamentalism, belated anti-Communism, xenophobia and homophobia, etc.” The real question is not Turkey at all. “What if cases like Poland,” Zizek coyly asks, “should compel us to narrow the entry, to redefine Europe in such a way that it would exclude the Polish Christian fundamentalism?” “Maybe,” he suggests, “it’s time to apply to Poland the same criteria we so eagerly apply to Turkey.”
The false note of uncertainty does not disguise the imperative: “Only through a ‘sectarian split’ from the standard European legacy, by cutting ourselves off from the decaying corpse of Old Europe, can we keep the renewed European legacy alive.” The real conflict is not between the West and the Rest. By Zizek’s reckoning, the real war concerns the cultural battle for control of the West. And Zizek is clear about the present imperative for the future of Europe. It’s time to get rid of recalcitrant Christians and make the world safe for the triumph of postmodern, er, tolerance.
Did I mention that Zizek has become very “hot” among the outré American scholars who tend to dominant the humanities at elite universities? But maybe that’s obvious. After all, hasn’t the same academic commissariat been quite clear about the need to exclude any whom they deem “Christian populist fundamentalists”?
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.