Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

Column

Merry Christmas, but where is the 'season of goodwill'?

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I was still being wheeled around in a pram when my parents began to predict that I would one day become a lawyer. The prediction was based on the size of my forehead, something in my facial expression and a general bookish passivity — a sharp contrast to my action-oriented siblings. True, I did not see the point of determining the substance of things by smashing them with a hammer.

What has that got to do with anything, you may ask? It has to do with looking back on a year of writing columns and opinions, taking stock of 2023 before it moves into the rear-view mirror.

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  • I would encourage all of us to be self-critical, to try harder to understand, and perhaps accept, other opinions. I start with myself

Reading these columns, I realise I may come across as the advocacy type, always angrily fighting the latest outrage.

But actually, my parents were wrong. If anything, I am more suited to being a judge than a lawyer. It's hard for me to take a side. I fear that I am unfair, that I have not tried hard enough to understand the other side of an argument. That I am cheap and polemical.

Also, I am just not a fan of the perpetually angry. In fact, I fear that the community of people who stand up for human rights and democracy is becoming unattractive because they always seem to be angry. Who wants to work with a bunch of grumpy people?

So, as the end of the year approaches, I don't want to write an angry column, even though there are plenty of things to be angry about (the continued failure of the EU and its member states to condemn Israel's blockade of Gaza, the European Commission's ridiculous claim that Hungary has made some progress on justice so that Viktor Orban can get his €10bn bribe).

I would encourage all of us to be self-critical, to try harder to understand, and perhaps accept, other opinions. I start with myself.

When Hamas attacked Israeli towns on 7 October, I thought too quickly: Israeli settlers have stepped up violence in the West Bank, now Hamas is escalating from Gaza, the spiral will never stop and Israeli retaliation will be a disaster for Gaza.

I gave no time for the horror of that day to sink in. Of course, there was context (as I wrote here), but there are moments to pause. To give space to deep feelings and to stop the analytical voice.

This analytical voice was recently on display when the heads of famous US universities refused to give clear answers when asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews violated university codes of conduct or constituted harassment. Yes, the line of questioning was a bit of a trap and they had previously spoken out clearly against anti-Semitism. And yes, the robust protection for free speech in the US makes the matter complicated.

Nevertheless, they should have spoken from the heart, like leaders, not lawyers.

The (pseudo-)analytical voice has also taken over much of the discussion about the disaster in Gaza: The numbers are not reliable, Hamas is using human shields, the humanitarian agencies are against Israel, and so on.

Let your hears be the judge

I would say: Let your hearts be the judge. Two million people, most of whom have had to leave their homes, have very, very little water, food and electricity. And this has been going on for more than two months. This not a collateral damage of the war. The Israeli government decided to impose the blockade. Do you feel this is right?

The debate over Israel and Palestine has accelerated our culture wars and widened the divides that have become a feature of our times. In my generation, many people seem to be enjoying a 'gotcha' moment. They point (rightly) to anti-Semitism on the left in order to dismiss a whole part of the left's agenda that makes them uncomfortable — discussions of racism, colonialism or Islamophobia.

That's a mistake. These things must be discussed. Big concepts and '-isms' are complicated and intimidating. This column is short and simple.

So, I can only share one experience: When I was young, we learned that Germany entered the first world war by invading neutral, small and innocent Belgium. That story was true — if you only have a European perspective.

But if you look at the story from the African continent, there was nothing innocent or small about Belgium.

It was running one of the most awful and genocidal colonial regimes in history in the huge territory of the so-called "Belgian Congo". If we do not want to see that perspective, we deny a part of our past and present reality. And we would not have these perspectives without all the work on (post-)colonialism that many people now dismiss.

So, my Christmas wish is that we get beyond the big -isms and have honest conversations about what they are trying to tell us. I don't have a utopian desire for social harmony. We will always disagree about things. That's why we have democracy. My wish is that the conversation does not end.

Of course, Christmas itself is becoming a victim of the culture wars. In the US, the far-right claims that the left is waging a "war on Christmas".

In Europe we should avoid this contamination of everything with tribal politics. Our continent is becoming more secular and multi-religious, so Christmas may become a little less central. It's up to everyone to decide how to celebrate the holiday.

But walk the streets of Europe and it will be hard to argue that Christmas is being marginalised. And let's not pretend that it takes courage to say Merry Christmas — it doesn't. Merry Christmas! Enjoy your holidays.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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