From the Lecturer: Reflections on my flight to Chautauqua

Guest Column by Ulrike Guérot

I am writing these lines during the eight hours of my flight to the United States. I had planned to finish the requested 1,000-word piece, which — I was told — would be published the day of my lecture, before my departure. But as always, there were a half-million things to do: “clean” an apartment for nearly a month of uninterrupted absence now, most importantly to dive one last time into my beloved Schlachtensee on a 90-degree Fahrenheit day, and say adieu to the Berlin summer for this year.

Obviously, I had in mind to take these 1,000 words to give you a sketch of my presentation so as to tease you to come. Yet, I changed my mind (having in memory that I could use the 1,000 words for whatever I would like to express).

So I am going personal here: When the invitation to Chautauqua came, I didn’t know about the Institution, so I checked it out on Google and was intrigued. The prospect to see the Niagara Falls nearby, to visit the “most American thing of America” in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, or to be with Christian Scientists (also featured in the services program, who would know something about Mary Baker Eddy) seduced me straight away.

Christian Science journalists had often interviewed me. The Christian Science Monitor happens to be one of the best, most informative and neutral journals I know. Why am I saying this? Because Christian Science is a religion, right? Many in German would probably even call it Sekte, by the way. So given this, the CSM as “source” should be a dubious one.

This reflection matters for this week’s focus on redefining Europe, where, in a row, distinguished people like Roger Cohen, David Marsh and Timothy Snyder will speak (so that I was wondering, Why I am in that row?).

On Saturday, I had posted a link of DWN (Deutsche Wirtschaftsnachrichten) — an obviously very obscure online portal, probably financed by Russia, highly “conspirative” and anti-EU. The article reported that a friend of mine, Shahin Vallée, former adviser of French Finance Minister Macron, had written a paper on the asymmetries of EMU governance and then given an interview to The New York Times saying that, in France, ever more intellectuals are discussing that Germany should leave the Eurozone, as its weight (and policy) would become unbearable for the others.

This is not a new analysis: Wolfgang Streeck has it in his book Gekaufte Zeit; George Soros has it in his book (which he wrote in 2013, completely disappointed about the German Euro policy and, by then, actually believing it would not change toward a more integrative and “fiscal-union style” policy). So I found it interesting to find that story in DWN, after having been only in the German Huffington Post and the Handelsblatt, mid-July, when former IMF Chief Ashoka Mody had given an interview on this, too.

It created a little shitstorm. Many serious people were telling me that the source is highly dubious. Yes, I responded, but the information seems to be a valid one, as neither Shahin, or The New York Times are by any means suspect. The real question here, I continued, is why barely another German journal is picking up on that important discussion in France, which is getting ever more louder among lefty intellectuals, that Germany should leave the Eurozone — as if this were not of interest for Germany?

In my history classes, I had learned decades ago that the historian must study all sources and then filter and analyze the messages — in this precise case perhaps an “informative message” in an otherwise unserious source.

In today’s serious FAZ, which I bought before boarding, there is an article about the Quandt family of BMW talking about Günther Quandt, who “with quite a fine sense,” distanced from Jewish bankers very early, which is why BMW didn’t run into political troubles in the 1920s. We further learn that BMW only engaged Zwangsarbeite, because there “weren’t other workers available,” an interesting way to frame it, I found. So I was wondering what I do with a dubious message in a serious journal? I posted it again on Facebook and was curious to see whether it would trigger the same shitstorm. It did not.

All this is to say that here we are apparently — you here in the U.S. and we over there in Europe — in a situation where we need to be concerned about independent, critical and investigative press (if it is not already lost: in a chart of Freedom House that I have in mind but cannot Google here in the plane, the U.S. were no longer in the top freedom-of-the-press countries, nor was the U.K.; Germany performed a little better).

So it might be time to recall the all-so-often repeated wisdom that the loss of democracy starts with the loss of free press.

I am not here to teach you about American democracy, hence, I must admit that a recent article by the U.S. sociology duo Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (“Democracy, that was a nice experiment”) struck me.

I am more here to tell you first how much I love(d) the USA and what this country did for me: giving me an assistant professor job at the prestigious Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in 1998, when I was only 33 years old and my English awfully bad (“You’ll learn it, you have something to teach us on Europe, that’s more important,” I was told.). Or for making a man out of my son, which happened in UCLA two years ago: it was the California thing.

But, second, to share my sadness today. Last year, I traveled two weeks through the U.S., from Phoenix to Minneapolis (I actually wrote a little essay about it, which was published in FAZ and which you can still find in the Internet). During this trip, I read George Packer’s story and Hedrick Smith’s about why you lost the American Dream.

One of the best discussions I ever had in the U.S. was the one in Minneapolis, where we were wondering, altogether in that room, in a delicious moment of discussion: Where had our aim for change — our aim for societal utopia, our aim for the collective better, our emancipatory energy — gone?

And we were happy to sit (me smoking, I must admit) in front of the bronze statue of Charlie Brown, and wished we had a Schmusedecke to cheer us up.

Today, we are losing the European Dream, which interestingly Jeremy Rifkin once spelled out, which I dreamed for some 25 years and kept working for in diverse functions. That is why I decided to design a beautiful and radical utopia for a different Europe, a “Europe as a Republic.”

A joke in the beginning. A psychotherapeutic way to sublimate my own pain about what is happening in Europe and where it seems so hard to make a U-turn.

Yet, word seems to spread and to find open ears, as youngsters in Europe are so thirsty to get a different Europe. Might this actually pave the way for change? In that case, I would need the support of the U.S. for it, because nothing is done in Europe that the U.S. does not support. So I am very happy for the prominent exposure for my ideas at Chautauqua today. Thank you for the invitation.

Ulrike Guérot is founder and director of the European Democracy Lab.