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Friday 28 September 2018

Prof. Timothy Snyder, 2018 Vienna Lecture at Vienna City Hall, Vienna Humanities Festival 2018, 9.5* out of 10

Timothy Snyder's 2018 Vienna Lecture and the following conversation with the Director of the Institute for Human Sciences Prof. Shalini Randeria were a thoughtful and thought-provoking delight. His book The Road to Unfreedom on which his lecture was based is an invaluable and lasting contribution to a most important problem of our time. A great start to this weekend's 2018 Vienna Humanities Festival. 

The 2018 Vienna humanities festival takes the form of a series salons (for which 19th century Vienna was famous) bringing together leading figures from academia, the arts and culture. About half of the events are held in English.

The festival started last night with a 30-minute lecture by Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. Snyder is a meticulous researcher specialising in the 20th-century history of central Europe. But he is so much more:  a gifted writer, a brilliant speaker, and an inspiring educator. 

For him, history is not only there to explore and explain the past, but to provide a structure to understand it and analyse the present and the future. Despite spending many years of his research on arguably the darkest chapters of world history emanating from Europe and taking place in the heart of this continent, or perhaps because of it, Snyder is not a pessimist or fatalist. He believes in the power of agency, driven by a sense of individual human responsibility. We can and must distinguish between good and bad (or at least between better than bad and downright evil) based on the solid pursuit of facts and a fact-based pursuit of truth. Here Snyder is emphatic: facts exist, truth exists and all of us, but young people, in particular, deserve to be encouraged to pursue both from a normative perspective, i.e. taking a view, even if it might vary individually of what they consider good and bad.

In his latest book The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder speaks about two views of history that seem to have dominated the intellectual and political worldview after the fall of the iron curtain. The first is “inevitability” as exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”. This view claims that there is no alternative to the route leading from where we were. to capitalism and liberal democracy. The only room for discussion is the extent to which the capitalist order needs mitigation and regulation. The view that it needs rather little of both, fuelled the crisis of 2008 and the political response of bailing out the banks. Snyder believes that there were other alternatives, but the inevitability view blocks us from considering them. Criticising this worldview is also what Snyder sees as his mild criticism of Obama and Hilary Clinton.

The other worldview is the “cyclical view” of history. This is the view that history is an ever-repeating cycle of intranational and international conflict and victimhood and cannot ever truly progress. Gains for all will always be temporary phenomena as sooner or later history will repeat itself as tragedy or farce, and we must not be fooled by it. This is the view propagated by the Putins and the Trumps of this world who gain and maintain power not by claiming to be able to improve their people’s lives but by explaining whose fault it is that those they govern are suffering. 

To do this, they make use of time honoured techniques such as the so-called  “active measures” which the Russian authoritarians employed already in the 19th century. Here the manipulator finds some disposition in the target and gets them to do something that is not in their interest. Our dispositions to be at least a little bit racist, misogynist and threatened by open displays of homosexuality are candidates for employing this technique.  And the internet and social media have given the potential effectiveness of active measures an enormous boost. 

Snyder identifies the Russian government as the main villain of the peace – perhaps a little too much. He says that fascism was based on “The One Big Lie” (i.e. everything is the fault of the Jews), while the politicians exercising power under the cyclical view of history today work by the propagation of the many medium-sized lies. At the same time, they discredit the belief that there is such a thing as the truth and encourage the view that everybody lies anyway. As the author Peter Pomerantsev has put it succinctly in the title of his excellent book on Putin’s Russia: “Nothing is true and everything is possible”. 

Snyder rejects both the inevitability view and the cyclic view of history. The future of human affairs cannot be predicted for certain. Here he joins Karl Popper’s theses as expressed in The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism.  Snyder emphatically believes in the power of agency by individuals and organisations to shape the future.  Ideas and actions based on an understanding of the structure of history which is accessible to us all are important to make the exercise of that agency beneficial. (Snyder in contrast the general accessibility of the study of history with the study of advanced physics which is not accessible to everybody.) He emphasises the importance of fact and the need to proceed on an understanding of what is good and what is bad, or at least what is a little bit better and a little bit worse and what is truly evil. Finally, the importance of fact-based high quality local investigative journalism is crucial to give such an effort a chance to succeed and allow liberal democracy to flourish.

Unlike some other academics, Snyder takes his role as an educator as seriously as his job as an historian. Shakespeare’s Hamlet describes the world into which the Danish prince is thrown and says: “Time is out of joint”. These words contributed to Snyder feeling compelled to write The Road to Unfreedom (The similarity to the title to Viennese School economists Friedrich Hayek’s seminal Road to Serfdom may not be entirely coincidental, although Snyder comes from a very different school of thought than Hayek). Becoming a historian who - controversially for the members of his profession- looks at the present and the future through the lens of a thorough and structured analysis of the past. Snyder does so in a sharp-eyed yet moving and entertaining way. He may not be right in every aspect, but Snyder makes an invaluable and lasting contribution to a most important debate of our time. 

Snyder’s lecture was followed by a conversation with the Director of the Institute for Human Sciences Prof. Shalini Randeria who probed his ideas carefully and critically bringing China India and other key world players into the debate and allowing Snyder to clarify some of the concept and ideas he raised in his lecture and his book. He did so with great clarity, modesty giving occasional glimpses of a fine sense of humour. The interview rounded up another memorable evening with one of the great historians, communicators, and educators of our time. Thoughtful, thought-provoking an entertaining.

Note: A number of error corrections and editorial changes to improve the readability of this text have been made several hours after it was first published.

Friday 21 September 2018

Weapon of Choice, Documentary Film Austria (2017), directed by Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger, 6.5* out of 10

Hampered in his investigation by potential and actual legal and political threats, film-makers Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger have still managed to create a thought-provoking documentary about Austria's high-impact contribution to Rap and Hip-Hop Culture. Whether it will also be allowed to provoke debate in Austrian mainstream media and society is an altogether different question.  

Surrounding the decaying Jewish cemetery of Deutsch-Wagram, a small town close to the Vienna city limits are the buildings containing the original workshop of an inventor who is behind Austria’s most powerful contribution to rap and hip-hop culture. 

His name is Gaston Glock. In 1981, without any previous experience in gun-design Mr. Glock invented a handgun with its steel barrel encased in a plastic-moulding, the Glock. His invention revolutionized the modern handgun. It also made Mr Glock a billionaire when his eponymous company and product conquered the US gun market in the 1990s. Its conquest began with the Glock becoming the weapon of choice for police forces throughout North America and continued with the Austrian gun reaching cult status among the members of inner-city gangs. As Glock rhymes with cock, and (sort of) with drop, cop, pop, shop and other useful everyday words in rap and hip-hop circles, Gaston Glock's second name became synonymous with “handgun” and mad its entry in hundreds of rap and hip-hop lyrics. 

Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger's documentary "Weapon of Choice" concentrates on three sociopolitical arenas in which the use of the Glock has become widespread: suppliers of guns and services to supposedly law-abiding US gun lovers, who emerge as rather friendly and eloquent people, Chicago gangs, whose ex-members emerge as rather honest people about the high they got from shooting their Glock to kill, and the (civil) war in Iraq, whose shady gun traders were offering Fritz Ofner a share of their profits, if he could use his Austrian passport and connections to get them to become Glock-company-approved gun-traders; or if he could at least bring them a few Glock's on a future trip to Iraq from Austria. Apparently he said no to both propositions. 

Ofner also interviews two former close business associates of the secretive and litigious inventor-businessman Gaston Glock. Both have spent significant periods in prison. One is the former CEO of Glock in the US. He chillingly explains how the first mass killing with a Glock in the eerily named town of Killeen, Texas turned out to be a major marketing plus for the company, that is now turning out more than 1.5 million guns a year in its Austrian factories, mainly for export world-wide. This export success ensures the philanthropist nonagenarian entrepreneur and inventor Gaston Glock and his company considerable protection and goodwill from Austrian politicians. The other interviewee and business associate of Glock, a jovial, money–laundering Falstaff-like figure from Luxembourg known as "Panama-Charley", is locked up in a Luxembourg prison for allegedly ordering the murder of Gaston Glock. This supposedly resulted in a failed attempt by a former French wrestling champion to kill Glock in a Luxembourg car park with an unusual “weapon of choice”, a plastic hammer for laying bathroom tiles. It does make one wonder whether there were no Glocks available in Luxemburg at the time.

Ofner and Hausberger's approach in their documentary is to let the viewer make up their own mind about the responsibility concerning of Glock the gun, Glock the company, Glock the man and the Austrian government who all benefit from the sales success of the gun. What responsibility, if any, do they have in misdeeds carried out with Glocks?  How should responsibility be allocated between incitement, shooter and gun? And what does that mean for those who produce, sell and facilitate the export of the gun into gangland and other warzones? And what about the good guys who defend themselves and law abiding citizens against violent crime, mass shootings and ideologically driven terrorism? Do they not need the best equipment to do their dangerous jobs?  

In their documentary Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger never explicitly ask these questions, let alone answer them. They want the viewer to do the thinking. Moreover, it's not too difficult to work out where the filmmakers tend to on these questions.

As Austrian citizens and residents making this film in Austria, Fritz Ofner and Eva Hausberger have shown considerable courage and determination. The threat of Gaston Glock’s long reach and heavy hand exerted via powerful lawyers and other means was hanging over him during the six years it took to complete the documentary. 

Perversely, the film can engender admiration for the Glock-gun and its inventor as much as disdain towards the role of this Austrian company in mass shootings, terrorist actions, and gang warfare. Ofner and Hausberger's attempt with this film to start a debate in Austria is courageous, but will most likely remain a flash in the pan.

For investigative journalists outside Austria, things are less fraught, apparently. Paul M. Barrett’s 2012 New York Times bestseller “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun” remains relevant background reading on the Glock and its maker.

Unsurprisingly, the legal and other worries in the 6 years it took to make this film and its non-campaigning approach have taken a toll on the end-product. Ofner's film is less hard-hitting, inquisitive and informative as a documentary than many viewers would have wished for. Nevertheless, “Weapon of Choice” is thought- provoking. Moreover, it is a worthwhile contribution to transparency and debate around gun culture, profits from weapons sales and the political protection for the benefit of potentially controversial companies in the land of Mozartkugeln, Sachertorte and the Sound of Music.

A mainly young audience packed the large Filmcasino cinema in Vienna at its premiere here and stayed on to listen intently to the understated and modest Fritz Ofner making his case for launching and inner-Austrian debate with his film. Clearly, he has found out a lot more about the subject than he could show on screen. 

Fritz Ofner (right) being interviewed 
at the premiere of  "Weapon of Choice" 
in Vienna's Film Casino