May 10, 2005

L'Ennui C'est Moi

How much of a motor force of history is, putting it plainly, boredom? One wonders, a non vote on the EU Constitution may, at least partly, result from a sense of continental ennui.

Perhaps an explanation for the current European spiritual condition was provided in that famous 1992 essay by Francis Fukuyama, who argued that history has ended. His idea was that the last great ideological struggle ended with the fall of Soviet Communism and the triumph of the liberal democratic idea, and that there could be no more advanced idea.

That is a cause for rejoicing. But as Mr. Fukuyama wrote, there was also something dispiriting about a post-historical world in which the Big Question no longer revolves around freedom but over how much New Zealand butter a nation could import.

"It is obvious by now that the European Union has become the framework for the disappearance of centuries of belligerence, and that's a fact," Michael Naumann, publisher of the German weekly Die Zeit, said. "But it has become so totally accepted that we won't go at each other's throats any more that people get bored."

In this sense, the European Union, which will include 27 countries and more than 500 million people by 2007, was made to be boring. Europeans have had more than their share of history - two world wars, dictatorships, German divisions, Soviet occupations - and there is no great appetite here for more of it.

" 'The rockets' red glare, bombs bursting in air,' sounds pretty good to an American," Mr. Gedmin said. "We say it at baseball games. But Germans don't want to hear about bombs bursting in air. They had that at Dresden."

So it is natural that the Europeans would focus on narrow matters of economic interest. "The dearth of ideas is the really true part of Fukuyama," Pierre Hassner, a French political philosopher, said recently. "In this sense, history really is finished."

But he and others disagree about the end-of-history argument; or, at least, they feel Europe doesn't represent the end of history Mr. Fukuyama had in mind. Even if he felt bored by New Zealand butter, his end of history was essentially a happy situation.

Europeans aren't happy. They are anxious, threatened not just by the Brussels bureaucracy but by immigration, economic stagnation and unemployment. "It's a nightmare of the end of history," said Alexander Adler, a commentator at Le Figaro, the French daily. "I don't think that Fukuyama thought it would lead to a foundering of historical optimism."

Mr. Hassner added to this idea: "The mood is not one of satisfaction or boredom but one of threat."

Yes, Brussels doubtless bores to tears. There is, after all, so little gloire amidst the Eurocrats milling about issuing regulations on tariff rates for goods being shipped in from outside the 'Zone. Meantime, it's getting increasingly ugly in places like the streets of Amsterdam. Thus might boredom wane and threat rear its ugly head more and more going forward, one fears. I've seen such street hooliganism increasingly in quite a few parts of Europe (and yes, north of the Danube--so not just in the land of Kusturica's Slivovitz-downing brigands.

But, for now, mostly I see a post-historical generation sometimes scared (Madrid bombings, chronic unemployment) but also (due to relative peace and prosperity) occupied by trifles (a belly-ring, say, or nose-ring? A secular marital compact rather than a traditionally religious marriage? Perhaps Buddhism a la Gere? Much deep self-exploration afoot...). An aside, that I may have touched on before. A day or two after 9/11 and I'm in Union Square. Spontaneous gaggles of perfect strangers were passionately debating back and forth. What Next? A young Spanish tourist, maybe mid-20s, the kind of guy who was in town to mill around some of the slightly boho quarters of mallish/Euro-thrashy Soho (think W. Broadway & Grand) or the meatpacking district. Doubtless a bit of clubbing fun had been on the pre 9/11 agenda at mega venues in the far W. 20s. But now wild talk of war was in the air. What was the Spaniards view, someone asked? War is "creepy" he opined. The word kind of lay out there for a while. He said it awkwardly, almost apologetically, doubtless innately understanding the world had been inexorably thrown into conflict the moment the Towers crumbled.

That's the state of post-historical, young Europe, isn't it? Defeatism, languor, belief in little worth rushing the ramparts for, a disingenuous faux-idealism. A queasy, discomforted perplexion. Boredom, really. After all, yes of course, war is a hellish nightmare. But pacifism in the face of great horrors becomes its own form of bovine fanaticism, doesn't it?

But enough Euro-bashing. And we will save a rant for the dumbed-down precincts of our own shores for another night. Suffice it to say that CNN's primetime line up: Nativist Lou! Anderson Emoting! Nanny-in-Chief Paula! Softball Larry! Insufferable Aaron! leaves me troubled for the fate of the polity. More on that another time.

Posted by Gregory at May 10, 2005 03:51 AM | TrackBack (5)

I cannot help seeing a connection between the inward-looking nations of Europe and the inward-looking people who populate them. The "protection of the French way of life" is just the egocentric fixation on "finding/understanding yourself" at a national level.

Theodore Dalrymple says this brilliantly.

Posted by: sammler at May 10, 2005 09:19 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't think that the malaise that's affecting Europe at the moment is ennui with a comfortable life, or the end of history. Very much the opposite. What Europeans are afraid of is that the party's over. The children of the 60s have been living off the capital accumulated by the hard work of postwar generation. The guaranteed rising standard of living, the increased leisure time, the comforting warm rosy glow of moral superiority - all this is rapidly coming to an end. Hard choices are going to be made, hard questions are going to be asked, and Europe wants to put off the black day as long as possible.

Posted by: Martin Adamson at May 10, 2005 12:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism
All we are saying...

Posted by: Doug at May 10, 2005 02:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In this sense, the European Union, which will include 27 countries and more than 500 million people by 2007, was made to be boring. Europeans have had more than their share of history - two world wars, dictatorships, German divisions, Soviet occupations - and there is no great appetite here for more of it.

one would be disposed to take your observations more seriously if your review of European history was not so America-centric that you acknowledged that Europe existed before the US became directly involved in European wars....

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 10, 2005 03:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Errr, I suppose he could have included the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian, and a few others, but why not limit it to the more recent high points? Most of the folks who saw those others are dead now, after all.

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