PARIS — Between all the brutal Brexit fireworks, the British government took an initiative of rare poetic dimension by establishing a "Building Better, Building Beautiful" commission.
According to its official terms of reference, the commission's task is to "develop practical policy solutions to ensure the design and style of new developments, including new settlements and rehabilitating city centers, to help grow a sense of community and place, not undermine it" and vows to "do so with popular consent." Like any other commission, it will have to produce a report, which is expected to be submitted to the Minister of State for Housing by the end of 2019. Even impoverished by its exit from the Single Market, Britain will be entitled to a makeover.
It's easy to laugh off such bureaucratic pretensions. Will Her Majesty's Cabinet, unable to produce a coherent strategy on its relations with the European Union, get involved in the color of its people's shutters?
Modernity has forgotten the merits of aesthetics — Photo: Alex Liivet
But this commission is not trivial. It's chaired by Roger Scruton, one of the most famous English philosophers, author of a reference book on The Aesthetics of Architecture. Scruton is conservative in the British sense of the word (and therefore anything but reactionary): He's an heir to Burke, who considers attachment to tradition as the best guarantor of freedom, and spontaneous order as the surest path to progress. Scruton sees the need for roots as a way to strengthen the individual in the face of impersonal market or state forces.
Scruton logically abhors the buildings designed by Le Corbusier and even more so those of his successors, a negation of history and its complexity, an attempt to eliminate relationship in favor of an abstract universal. And he advocates a model of architecture based on both the local environment and human experience, in other words: a need for a home. Scruton is definitively throwing away functionalist theories, and is giving the ornamental back its rightful place. The previous obsession with utility is a promise of obsolescence.
Without succumbing to Scruton's nostalgia, we must admit that our modernity has completely forgotten the merits of aesthetics. It's nowhere to be found in the criteria of "well-being" and remains largely absent from political discourse. Development heralds like Steven Pinker, convincing when analyzing violence reduction or educational progress, don't devote a single line to the issue of aesthetics.
There's nothing more subtle to define than the judgment of taste.
I believe that for the first time in the history of Homo sapiens, the vast majority of us are living in the midst of the non-beautiful. The charm of old European cities is reserved for a few tens of millions of happy few: from Lima to Johannesburg by way of Baltimore, Beijing, Sao Paulo, Montreal, Moscow, Delhi, Cairo or Bucharest, the concrete facades and the hodgepodge of brand logos all look the same. On the other hand, everyone marvels at the Andean villages, the Chinese countryside or the half-timbered houses of Normandy. It's as if the necessities of mass construction in the last century had put our anthropological need for beauty on hold.
I readily admit that there's nothing more subtle to define than the judgment of taste, a subject of metaphysical controversy since Plato, and I am wary of Scruton's flights of lyricism on the "meaning of the sacred." But it's also difficult to deny a kind of aesthetic common sense: Why else do tourists flow to the "historic city centers' rather than the suburbs? Why else are traditional Romanian houses, with their beveled roofs and bright colors, irresistibly more attractive than new constructions financed by the diaspora? Isn't there a form of anti-fragility in respecting one's heritage, to use Nassim Taleb's expression? When it successfully withstands the centuries, at the cost of a thousand successive improvements, hasn't an architectural form proved its worth?
State-of-the-art contemporary architecture has largely integrated the contextual imperative, but it is slow to become more democratic. It's up to all of us to put aesthetic reflection back at the heart of our way of life, by ceasing to consider beauty as a luxury. Advances in technology and materials should allow us to dream of a world that is more open, more prosperous, and, yes: less ugly.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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