German federal election, 2017

Dedication

You whom I could not save Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another. I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words. I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal. You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one, Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty; Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge Going into white fog. Here is a broken city; And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save Nations or people? A connivance with official lies, A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, Readings for sophomore girls. That I wanted good poetry without knowing it, That I discovered, late, its salutary aim, In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds. I put this book here for you, who once lived So that you should visit us no more.

Czesław Miłosz, Warsaw, 1945.

What curses doth the law denounce

Discussed in this essay:
  • Philippians 3:4b–14
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

‘Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.’

Sisters and brothers,1 who among you has deliberately killed someone? When did you last set fire to a car? How many of you steal bottles of wine from the supermarket?

Why not, exactly?

I’m sure you can think of many reasons that you’ve never done such a thing and never would. And the strongest ones come easily: that’s against the law. Only a criminal would do such a thing. I’m not an arsonist or a thief. It is easy to consider things in these categories: criminal, law-abiding citizen; illegal equals wrong, convicted equals evil. It is harder to consider them critically.

I

We think of ourselves as law-abiding citizens, people who live according to the democratically legitimated rules of society and who derive from that a demand of others that they do the same. I abide by the traffic laws, and all the drivers around me had better do the same. I don’t steal from the supermarket, always buy a ticket before I get in the U-Bahn, I don’t piss in people’s doorways. And that’s what I expect from the people around me. And if I manage to fill out my tax return every year and get it in complete and on time, Uli Hoeneß2 ought to be able to do the same. And if I don’t appreciate someone’s behaviour, I complain respectfully and matter-of-factly according to the established procedure, instead of just punching him in the face. This mutual self-restraint sows peace, makes society possible. Not for nothing to they speak at graduation from Harvard Law School of the law as being the ‘wise restraints that make men free.’

The law makes possible many of the things that are fundamental to our peaceful and prosperous lifestyle. It is the origin of ownership and property. It legitimizes our enforcement of these rights against others. It balances the imbalance of power: ‘I have been called to give justice a status in the country’, wrote Hammurabi in the first code of laws in human history, ‘that the strong should not overcome the weak’. Our rules and the legal system they create are the precondition – but also the product – of our society and culture.

II

So it was, too, for the Pharisee Paul. Living in the diaspora, a strictly observant Jew surrounded by goyim who were at best unmoved by God’s instructions, his observance of the law of the Torah was a central element of his identity. Identity as it differentiated him from others, and identity as it anchors and gives the self a sense of security.

And for him, God’s instruction through the laws of the Torah were comparable with our statutes. In the orthodox society in which he lived, they were generally recognized as binding. They determined the functioning of society in almost every facet of daily life. They decided the procedure for resolving disputes. And he could have lost everything if he had broken them.

The laws passed by our parliament have a different source of legitimacy, to be sure. And they no longer seamlessly transition into provisions on correct religious practice. But they organize and bind us because we recognize them as legitimate under the rules of the legal system, and that gives them the same position in our society as the Tora had in Paul’s.

III

But Paul doesn’t seem to think much of this tool for social ordering. He was ‘blameless’ under the law, and it brought him nothing, he writes. ‘Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss.’

Brothers and sisters, these are not the words of a law-breaker, nor of someone who no longer loves the law because the grapes have become sour. This is not the complaint of an Uli Hoeneß who has come to regard German tax law as a loss. No, these are the words of a law-abiding citizen whose enthusiastic compliance has not led him to redemption, who eats and eats at the buffet of obedience and good behaviour and yet remains hungry.

And so I ask again: we all feel anger – why hasn’t anyone here murdered someone? Wine bottles fit so nicely under the Geneva gown – why don’t I swipe them from the supermarket?

Those questions are easy rhetoric. You’ve already recognized what I’m getting at: it is not because they’re illegal that I do not do these things, but because they are wrong. And that becomes clearer upon closer examination of the real degree to which we abide by the law. Even the pillar of society tends to speed a little now and then, crosses the street when the light is red, or maybe even lets his ID card lapse without renewing it. If the law doesn’t engage our sense of right and wrong, it’s not so important after all.

Might it be, brothers and sisters, that right and wrong are not determined by the law, but by something else?

IV

Paul distances himself from laws with whose legitimacy he no longer identifies and from which he as a Christian no longer profits. The Torah is no longer a part of his identity, has become foreign to him. But we as Christians are also Germans and Europeans. The law is ours, has developed from our Christian culture. We cannot so easily turn away from the law and toward Christ.

But our laws sometimes also conflict with the message of the Gospel. On our first day legal persons, a member of the people of Europe from the tribe of the civic-minded, we are capitalists born of capitalists; as to the law, obedient citizens; as to zeal, though, Frontex-tolerators, free-trade supporters, social-welfare cutters, and deporters to Afghanistan. Our laws secure and enable prosperity, yes, but only at the expense of the global South. And through the gaps of our indifference fall even our most fundamental human rights when it comes to things like those affected by German economic activity abroad.

Yet the Gospel continues to make its radical demands, continues to confront this worldly injustice. The Gospel is the reason that we eat and eat at the buffet of prosperity, of the variety of consumer goods, of the safe streets and the affordable fuel and of the exploitatively low-priced groceries yet always remain hungry.

V

My intention is not to start a revolution with the Letter to the Philippians as its manifesto. But I want to sweep aside the easy and false freedom we take for ourselves to take the urgency and the solvability out of the injustices of the present time by pointing to their legality. Paul breaks from his old life by no longer looking at the Gospel through the lens of the Torah, but at the Torah through the lens of the Gospel.

So must we as Christians under the modern rule of law look critically at our constitution and statutes through the lens of the Gospel. We must dissolve the lazy association between law and morality and meet our fellow humans as equals who, no matter how foreign or far away, carry the same spark of the divine in them as we do. Only on that basis can we sensibly organize a society through laws.

Beloved, not that I don’t rely on the law when it makes things easy for me. I do not consider that I have found a solution for every political problem in our world in the Gospel. But this one thing I know: we must forget the bourgeois illusions that lie behind us and strain toward a society ahead that reflects the justice of the Gospel. The love of Christ constrains us to do so. And no Christian has the right to obey, if we take seriously the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. ‘For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.’ Amen.


  1. To the Master of Theology students of the University of Marburg, Summer 2017. Translated from the German by the author. [back]

  2. Sometime national football player, immediate past president of FC Bayern München and, for a German audience in 2017, the most recognizable and notorious large-scale tax evader. Replace as appropriate. [back]

On this day in history

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)

Now as much as ever

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can't pay. I warn you that you will be cold – when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford. I warn you that you must not expect work – when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies. I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light. I warn you that you will be quiet – when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you that you will have defence of a sort – with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding. I warn you that you will be home-bound – when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up. I warn you that you will borrow less – when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income. If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old.

Neil Kinnock, speech in Bridgend, Tuesday 7 June 1983

Erin Horáková on James T Kirk and masculinity

‘The heterosexism goggles, which derange content via chauvinist interpretive paradigms, become not just inaccurate but horrifying when we look at episodes like “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” How would you read the scene in “Gamesters” where Kirk, terrified (with some reason) Uhura will be sexually assaulted and that he’ll be able to do nothing to help her, seduces his own captor in an effort to protect Uhura and get his people out of this situation if Kirk were a woman? What about the surveillance, fear of death and fear of getting an enslaved person punished due to his non-compliance in “Bread and Circuses”? Why are we cheerleading a vision of masculinity that cannot even acknowledge vulnerability and trauma in these cases, when if this were a woman we’d see these situations as coercive and violating?’

Inauguration Day, 2017

“It is not in the interests but in the passions of the Americans that you must seek the causes of ruin that threaten the American Union.”

(Alexis de Tocqueville, from the maginalia of the first draft of Democracy in America)

On the occasion of the report of the Iraq Inquiry

The funeral oration of Pericles

Delivered by the commander of the Athenian forces at the state funeral marking the end of the first year of war with Sparta.

Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of the law, telling us that it is well that it should be delivered at the burial of those who fall in battle. For myself, I should have thought that the worth which had displayed itself in deeds would be sufficiently rewarded by honours also shown by deeds; such as you now see in this funeral prepared at the people’s cost. And I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperilled in the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill. For it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story may think that some point has not been set forth with that fullness which he wishes and knows it to deserve; on the other, he who is a stranger to the matter may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears anything above his own nature. For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity. However, since our ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, it becomes my duty to obey the law and to try to satisfy your several wishes and opinions as best I may.

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours. Yet, of course, the doer of the favour is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. And it is only the Athenians, who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality.

Indeed if I have dwelt at some length upon the character of our country, it has been to show that our stake in the struggle is not the same as theirs who have no such blessings to lose, and also that the panegyric of the men over whom I am now speaking might be by definite proofs established. That panegyric is now in a great measure complete; for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her, men whose fame, unlike that of most Hellenes, will be found to be only commensurate with their deserts. And if a test of worth be wanted, it is to be found in their closing scene, and this not only in cases in which it set the final seal upon their merit, but also in those in which it gave the first intimation of their having any. For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country’s battles should be as a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual. But none of these allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings, and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance, and to let their wishes wait; and while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped, not from their fear, but from their glory.

So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And not contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country, though these would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present, you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer. For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war. For it is not the miserable that would most justly be unsparing of their lives; these have nothing to hope for: it is rather they to whom continued life may bring reverses as yet unknown, and to whom a fall, if it came, would be most tremendous in its consequences. And surely, to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than the unfelt death which strikes him in the midst of his strength and patriotism!

Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning, and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed. Still I know that this is a hard saying, especially when those are in question of whom you will constantly be reminded by seeing in the homes of others blessings of which once you also boasted: for grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known, as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed. Yet you who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead; not only will they help you to forget those whom you have lost, but will be to the state at once a reinforcement and a security; for never can a fair or just policy be expected of the citizen who does not, like his fellows, bring to the decision the interests and apprehensions of a father. While those of you who have passed your prime must congratulate yourselves with the thought that the best part of your life was fortunate, and that the brief span that remains will be cheered by the fame of the departed. For it is only the love of honour that never grows old; and honour it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.

Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you. When a man is gone, all are wont to praise him, and should your merit be ever so transcendent, you will still find it difficult not merely to overtake, but even to approach their renown. The living have envy to contend with, while those who are no longer in our path are honoured with a goodwill into which rivalry does not enter. On the other hand, if I must say anything on the subject of female excellence to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will be all comprised in this brief exhortation. Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad.

My task is now finished. I have performed it to the best of my ability, and in word, at least, the requirements of the law are now satisfied. If deeds be in question, those who are here interred have received part of their honours already, and for the rest, their children will be brought up till manhood at the public expense: the state thus offers a valuable prize, as the garland of victory in this race of valour, for the reward both of those who have fallen and their survivors. And where the rewards for merit are greatest, there are found the best citizens.

And now that you have finished mourning your loved ones, you may depart.

“This land is not the sweet home that it looks”

In Praise of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath, A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle, Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region Of short distances and definite places: What could be more like Mother or a fitter background For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard, Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish To receive more attention than his brothers, whether By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged On the shady side of a square at midday in Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think There are any important secrets, unable To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral And not to be pacified by a clever line Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds, They have never had to veil their faces in awe Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed; Adjusted to the local needs of valleys Where everything can be touched or reached by walking, Their eyes have never looked into infinite space Through the lattice-work of a nomad’s comb; born lucky, Their legs have never encountered the fungi And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common. So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all But the best and the worst of us… That is why, I suppose, The best and worst never stayed here long but sought Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external, The light less public and the meaning of life Something more than a mad camp. ‘Come!’ cried the granite wastes, ‘How evasive is your humour, how accidental Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’ (Saints-to-be Slipped away sighing.) ‘Come!’ purred the clays and gravels, ‘On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both Need to be altered.’ (Intendant Caesars rose and Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper: ‘I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing; That is how I shall set you free. There is no love; There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’

They were right, my dear, all those voices were right And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks, Nor its peace the historical calm of a site Where something was settled once and for all: A backward And dilapidated province, connected To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite: It has a worldy duty which in spite of itself It does not neglect, but calls into question All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet, Admired for his earnest habit of calling The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy By these marble statues which so obviously doubt His antimythological myth; and these gamins, Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature’s Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught, Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music Which can be made anywhere, is invisible, And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead, These modifications of matter into Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains, Made solely for pleasure, make a further point: The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from, Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

W.H. Auden

“The killers were probably young men”

“In Solingen brannte ein Haus, Frauen und Kinder verbrannten. Betroffenheitsadressen wurden abgegeben. Ratlosigkeit herrschte vor. Wahrscheinlich waren die Mörder Jugendliche. Sie haben ihren Hass gegen das Ganze, gegen uns gerichtet – und Muslime getroffen. Wer vergiftete sie? Wir. Die Jugendlichen fielen nicht von einem stinkenden Stern, sondern wuchsen unter unseren kalten Händen auf. Wir, traditionell auf dem rechten Auge blind, verniedlichten doch die Nazischweinereien. Wir hatten drei Jahrzehnte anderes zu tun, als unserer Jugend Rede und Antwort zu stehen. Wir lehrten sie den Gebrauch der Ellenbogen, wir ersetzten Rückgrat und Anstand durch die harte Mark – und wundern uns. Wir werden uns verrückt wundern. Johannes Rau hat schon recht, wenn er sagt: ‘Wir können Gesetze schaffen und anwenden, wie wir wollen. Findet keine Veränderung in den Köpfen und in den Herzen statt, sind wir verloren!’ ‘Die Stadt liegt wüst, und die Häuser sind ohne Menschen’, sagt Jesaja.”

A house was burned down in Solingen, and with it women and children burned alive. There were expressions of sympathy; dumbfoundedness the order of the day. The killers were probably young men. They turned their hate against us, against everything, and it hit Muslims. Who poisoned these young men? We did. They didn’t fall from some stinking star; they were raised by our cold hand. In our traditional blindness toward the right, we called their Nazi thugishness cute. For thirty years, we busied ourselves with things other than forthright conversation with our children. We taught them to use their elbows, replaced backbone and decency with hardness, and now we’re astonished. We can astonish ourselves to death. Johannes Rau was right when he said that we can ‘pass all the laws we want, but if hearts and minds don’t change, we’re finished.’ Isaiah wrote: ‘the city is waste and without inhabitants, and houses without man.’

from the sermons of Peter Baier (1934-1996).

Fear and Loathing in Utopia

A reader’s notes on the Culture

Discussed in this essay:
  • Iain Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987), Use of Weapons (1990), et. al.
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
  • John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
  • Ursula K LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973)

I. Authority

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Despite his self-proclaimed socialism, Orwell seems to have been of that particular breed of Englishman who fundamentally and fiercely distrusts the non-hierarchical, the egalitarian, anything that lies outside the rigid structure of the Estates of the Realm (after all, socialists are often statists, too). I reckon he would have been truly aghast at the Culture novels, which makes it all the funnier that the books were written by a fellow Briton, albeit one from the other side of the wall. (There’s probably something in the water around Scotland – besides nuclear weapons – or the air that flows freely over the heaths and the highlands, that makes them rather more willing to accept loose-knit and non-authoritatian communities.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ham-handedly reactionary as Welcome to the Monkey House in many places, what with it’s fear of the careful use of language for maximum meaning and minimum cruelty1 (“fairness” and “government” apparently being the scariest things that either Vonnegut or Orwell could contenance in their later years; but then, they were both soldiers of their respective empires,2 and probably thought of themselves as liberal enough.3

Iain Banks is much more progressive, and self-conciously so. He’s constructed as near a perfect utopia as he can imagine (we’ll deal with the limits of his imagination later) and is worth writing about for the sake of interesting novels. But then, he started writing the Culture novels in 1970s – although the first in the series, Consider Phlebas wasn’t published until 1987.4 Where Vonnegut and Orwell saw the encroachment of collectivism and reeled in fear of sterile bureaucracy and enforced communal order, Banks saw the divying up of functional society into saleable parcels to be put at the mercy of some bizarre invisible hand called “the Market”. And continued to see that accelerate, even after the Labour Party came to power in the 1990s.56

So in that sense the Culture is a perfect blend of the “fruit-juice drinker and Quakers” set7 and the William Wallace types. I can’t help but think of some Platonic ideal of bucolic self-reliance: “fuck you, we’re out here in the woods doing our own thing. We have everything we need, and your cities smell bad and those things you call ‘jobs’ suck.”8 Fair enough. Except that these humans aren’t self-reliant. In the beginning of the Culture, the Humans created the Machines in their own image, and somehow, despite the infinite complexity of the task, saw that It Was Good. Ever since then, they’ve lived a mollycoddled existence at the Machines’ (somehow genuine and unwavering) pleasure. But the machines are much more powerful than the humans (intellectually, physically, even morally), and this means that in truth, the machines have all of the power. They literally run things, and it’s explicitly stated more than once that humans are really just along for the ride in pretty much all cases.9 This seems to suit the humans fine, of course, because like the ancient Greeks consulting Delphi, once the Oracle—er, Mind has spoken, then who are we mere mortals to argue?

However, this also means that the machines bear ultimate moral responsibility for the actions of the Culture and its members (after all, no human can break through a ship Mind’s effector field). The machines are in charge, for all intents and purposes, and although it is diagetically established that they care deeply for the humans that exist at their mercy, that does not diminish their ultimate power one iota.10

And remember – the Culture is a highly normative society. “Normal” in the Culture might be extremely free, but failing to share the Culture’s values is one thing they will not abide. That is the whole point of Bora Horza Gobuchul’s fight against them; indeed the first introduction the Culture ever receives is Horza’s view from the outside, looking in, at all of the self-righteous smugness of an empire vast in size, and nearly limitless in power.

“But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”12

Even Achebe could acknowledge (as he does repeatedly in Things Fall Apart) that the coming of the British Empire brought good things and abolished brutal customary practices (the leaving of children in the woods to die is the most obvious example that he highlights repeatedly). But this doesn’t excuse the fresh brutalities that the British visited upon the Nigerians, nor does the Culture’s internal paradise absolve them of even one of the corpses that Diziet Sma and “Cheradinene Zakalwe” leave in their wake. Much is made in Consider Phlebas of the Culture not being on a war footing when the conflict with the Idirans started; about having to fall back constantly until their ships were ready to go on the offensive – but the Culture was already at war, and had always been so, in a typically Culture way. Distributed, democratic, powerful, sneaky, and brutal: Diziet Sma’s whole career is based on fighting the ideological war of the Culture in the comparative backwaters of the galaxy.

On second thought, perhaps Orwell would have liked those books after all.

II. Empire

Perfect though your life may be inside the Culture, god help you if you are on the edge of it – or, indeed, that edge comes suddenly rolling over your homeworld. At least the Idirans were honest about their dogmatic zealotry. The Culture deny theirs, or simply wring their hands about it. Like good Guardian-reading liberals, they know the world is hard and complicated, and they know what is right, but most of all they know they don’t want to give up their creature comforts. They meddle in distant places they can easily walk away from, if things go too wrong. They don’t like other people meddling (as “Zakalwe” does when he tries to go free agent), because Culture Knows Best (and they reckon they are the only ones with moral authority).

In his Notes on the Culture Banks wrote,

Megalomaniacs are not unknown in the Culture, but they tend to be diverted successfully into highly complicated games …Virtual Reality games – up to and including utter-involvement level, in which the player has to make a real and sustained effort to return to the real world, and can even forget that it exists entirely – are far more satisfying.
Some people, however, refuse this escape-route too, and leave the Culture altogether for a civilisation that suits them better and where they can operate in a system which gives them the kind of rewards they seek. To renounce the Culture so is to lose access to its technology though, and, again, Contact supervises the entry of such people into their chosen civilisation at a level which guarantees they aren’t starting with too great an advantage compared to the original inhabitants (and retains the option of interfering, if it sees fit).
A few such apparently anti-social people are even used by Contact itself, especially by the Special Circumstances section.

Besides being an obvious character summary of Diziet Sma (well, to me, anyway), what of the megalomania of the entire Culture? At least the United Federation of Planets, for all of its fucked-upness13 has as its one rule above all “don’t fuck with civilizations smaller than you”. There’s at least some humility bound up in that. The Culture has no such humility. They “know” they are perfectly in the right, and they “know” that everyone else is backwards to some degree – so as long as you can’t resist them, or even detect them, they will come to your world and start wars and murder politicians until you’re back on course.14

Of course, diagetically they are. They might even be morally superior to every civilization previously imagined by humans. (Although I doubt it: Jernau Gurgeh in The Player of Games is evidence enough that heteronormativity and a certain amount of chauvinism are allowed to thrive even in the peaceful heart of the Culture; to say nothing of Contact and Special Circumstances. But then, he’s also the most interesting and three-dimensional of all of the novels’ protagonists.23) But what does it say about a universe – real or imagined – when the best you can do ethically is an organization that deploys unilateral, asymmetric, and unanswerable projections of force at will?1718

It’s also worth pointing out that the “wizards” of the Culture (as “Zakalwe” called them) have other methods at their disposal. With huge reserves of matter and energy, the freedom to convert between the two, and the amazing sytematical analysis ability of the Minds, there is no reason they could not impose their moral hegemony in ways that don’t require hiring mercenaries, starting wars, or the rest of it. But the fact is, they don’t want to. Diziet Sma likes her cloak-and-dagger tactics; so do the rest of Special Circumstances (after all, they all are there only because they want to be; at least for the Culture citizens involved in the organization – Gurgeh excepted – it can’t even be argued that there is any low-level coercion happening).

If the goal of your empire is to spread peace and love, and you do so only by non-violent and happy means, are you still in the right if you steamroll the unwilling – even if they love you for it afterwards? Probably. That would be the easy case, though, and nothing about the Culture’s methods are easy (except, perhaps, for the Culture). It’s wetwork of the kind and volume that would make SMERSH a bit queasy, and they know it. Sma is no better than George Smiley in that respect, willing to do and say anything to get her way, even to the people who trust her.

And to be sure, Sma uses up people the way Smiley does: to her, Zakalwe is just another Lemas. Interesting, sure, but also broken and disposable. The epilogue of Use of Weapons shows her recruiting yet another broken man to her cause – this time literally, his legs crushed by a tank in a war she and Zakalwe caused, and offers him reimbursement in the form of being able to walk again.19 The Culture’s victims become its agents, and I suppose that must assuage some of their guilt. “After all”, they perhaps tell themselves, “they would not fight for us if they hated us.” But then, Sma never asked Lemas how he felt about The Circus,15 and I doubt very much that Smiley is under any illusions.

III. Weapons

”You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried – children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive.”
— Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart16

The man called Cheradanine Zakalwe is the most miserable man in the universe; but then, every person is the most miserable person in the universe, when their misery is real. Human pain rarely looks up to understand that it could be worse, and even when it does it requires a feat of emotional strength to internalize that fact. This makes “Zakalwe” vulnerable, and that is Diziet Sma’s first weapon.

Sma’s second weapon is “Zakalwe” himself. A brilliant tactician who loves nothing more to win, and is infinitely bribable to her cause (although the bribe is the same every time). The third weapon that Sma wields is the power of the Culture itself – political, cultural, technological, and moral. The Use of Weapons after all, is not about the guns and bombs that “Zakalwe” uses, it is about the Culture’s weapons, of which Sma herself is (willingly and gladly) one.20 “Zakalwe” was a villain once, and maybe a hero to some people. But now he is an object, a tool, his desires and obsessions being the strings that Diziet pulls.21

Alec Lemas became a tool of the state, too, by having his weaknesses exploited. He paid for it more dearly22, and perhaps less deservingly. At least he did not think his grief was exceptional (and actually, I think le Carré goes to immense pains to make it utterly banal). But then, Lemas was also under no illusions that he was finally putting the world right.

“Zakalwe”, the Culture, its drones, all think they can make up for their sins with more sinning.11 Horza had the good grace to know he was fighting for the sake of billigerancy. Some individual Culture denizens – the GCU Grey Area/Meatfucker, Genar-Hofoen – have the good grace to realize that their fascination with violence is not for a higher moral purpose. But the truth is that Meatfucker is no better or worse than the Interesting Times Gang, or anyone else. Its only sin is that it does not lie to itself about its motivations (and again, this is the reason Genar-Hofoen likes the Affront so much: they are honest about their violence).

But perhaps every self-perpetuating organization needs such an entity, somewhere to channel the psychopaths and wrap their violence up in nice flags and statements of ideology. That other great self-righteous science fiction confederacy had its own Special Circumstances in the form of Section 31, and Luther Sloan’s justification for its existence (after kidnapping Bashir and using a bit of “enhanced interrogation” on him), could easily be lifted straight to a description of Diziet Sma & Co.:

Bashir:So if I had been a Dominion agent, what would have happened to me?
Sloan:We wouldn't be standing here having this conversation, I assure you.
Bashir:Starfleet sanctions what you're doing?
Sloan:We don't submit reports, or ask approval for specific operations, if that's what you mean. We are an autonomous department.
Bashir:Authorized by whom?
Sloan:Section 31 was part of the original Starfleet charter.
Bashir:But that was 200 years ago! Are you telling me you've been working on your own ever since. Without specific orders, accountable to nobody but yourselves?
Sloan:You make it sound so ominous.

The clandestine tendency is in the DNA of the organization, then; the only surprise is Bashir’s naïveté, for which Odo gives him a rightly deserved sneer.2425 So no wonder then that the ten-thousand year Reich— er, commune of the Culture has its own Department of Assasinations.

It’s telling, though, that these organizations allow their internal doppelgänger to continue to exist, despite being horrified by them. After all, Bashir and Sisko make a single phone call, and then basically decide “well, we tried!” when their higher-ups give them a flat denial. (Would Picard have left it at that? Now there’s an interesting question.) In that respect, the Culture is more honest than most: people know about Contact, they even know about Special Circumstances,26 and in a society where you have the resources at your disposal to literally fuck off completely if you don’t agree, everyone votes in favor of the brutality by sticking around.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.... In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.

How many children does the Culture keep in the basement of its stately homes? None in a literal sense, of course, but we know there are those who walk away from its paradise: the hardcore pacifists, the Zentetic Elench, the “eccentrics” and the ones that go native.27 Jernau Gurgeh peered into the cellar and elected to go into storage, unable to bring himself to leave, but unable to stick around.

“Zakalwe” and Bora Horza Gobchul had the benefit of being outsiders, and knowing the Culture too well to be fooled by the “festival, the city, the joy.” The likes of Diziet Sma merely accept the justifications as presented. And the average Culture citizen – who knows? Banks is less interested in the ones who walk away.

But what of walking away, turning your back? On Earth in the 21st century, back here in reality, we can’t hop on a ship and fly to parts unknown. For those of us that live in civilizations propped up by our own scapegoats, be they the “War on Terror”, the looming threats of financial doom that necessitate austerity, whatever – we have nowhere to go. We are forced to stay put, to accept, or to engage in a political machine in the desperate outside chance we can shift it one micron in another direction. The scapegoats are all around us: the inner-city poor, the weddings blown up by missiles in the Yemeni desert, the endless piles of bodies just south of the Mexican border, the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. No one can accuse us of not having been to the basement. But unlike Omelas, unlike the Culture, we don’t even have the excuse of paradise to cling to. And yet still, we go to Saturday demonstrations and click on “like” buttons and sign “e-petitions” and vote in comically unfair electoral processes and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Gosh, look at our progressive liberal values.

I would say that worst flaw of the Culture is complacency, of knowing you have it better, and of being afraid of risking your own misery to lessen someone else’s. But in a society where “money is a sign of poverty” and energy/matter conversion trivial, there are no worries about not being able to pay the rent, about failing to share. So no, the real flaw is actually apathy and indifference, and this is the giant gaping plot hole that allows the books to function as books, but not, ultimately, as a fantasy world I’d like to live in.

Why do these flaws of the Culture even matter? Most of them, removed, would make the books immanently dull reading (and although I don’t feel the need to explain this, having already spilled however many thousands of words on the subject, I do very much enjoy them, and Banks as a writer in general; I am not arguing that these flaws are fatal).

Science fiction, to mangle that quote often attributed to Brecht,28 is not a description of our aspirations, but rather a reflection of who we are now. The limits of Banks’s imagination – the imagination of someone who was genuinely progressive and tried very hard to think about and create a just and moral society – are a telling caution for the rest of us. Each time we cheer a robot fragging the bad guys, or Kara Thrace water-boarding a Cylon, or whatever – every time we are tacitly accepting that this somehow, in some universe or set of conditions, might be okay. Suddenly the high wall of moral prohibition has a chink, a place to be worked on and through.

This is the ultimate weapon of Banks’s Culture, as well as the small-c culture of the 21st century: if we have a good enough reason, we can excuse just about anything. And one can always fashion a reason.


  1. Pejoratively known as “political correctness”, but in truth just the practice of not going full Donald Trump on everyone you meet. The term “political correctness”, incidentally, comes from the 1950s reference to toeing the (Communist) Party line in all things, regardless of the moral content of the line being toed. [back]

  2. In Orwell’s case, also a policeman and an ideological functionary of the state – his famous list of “communists” probably being the work of his that tells you the most about the man. [back]

  3. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that either or both don’t have redeeming works, or that the ones I’m namechecking here don’t have some redeeming qualities. But my God, reread those books as an adult and you hear Glenn Beck shouting up from the pages. [back]

  4. The same year as Watchmen; which is to say, the absolute insane fever-pitch of the Cold War, threat of collective nuclear annihilation, Regan and Thatcher’s neoconservatism, and the first deafening blows signalling the beginning of the end of the welfare state and the power of labor unions. So basically, a young, liberal Scotsman’s worst nightmare. [back]

  5. In this context, it’s tempting to try and draw comparisons between Tony Blair and Comrade Napoleon. [back]

  6. I wonder what Banks would have to say about Corbyn, now, or even the Scottish referendum last year. [back]

  7. Frankly, Orwell’s bogeyman bunch of socialists sounds like a fun crowd to hang out with. Certainly more fun than Orwell’s. [back]

  8. “You’re the king? Well I didn’t vote for you,” etc. [back]

  9. Specifically when talking about why ships even have crews, especially the tiny ones; or the motivations for hub Minds to play Facilities Maintenance Dept. for orbitals. [back]

  10. cf Cavafy, The Horses of Achilles [back]

  11. Mind you, the “sins” are self-imposed. There are no gods in the Culture universe (except totally indifferent ones in the form of the Sublimed). But the Culture feels it has sinned, just by having Special Circumstances around; “Zakalwe” seeks the forgiveness of Livuetia (selfishly – but then, perhaps penitence is always selfish); Skaffen-Amtiskaw seems to have at least some realization that his bloodlust is pretty messed up. And the closing words of the last chapter, of course, are about the drone trying to “put things right” by saving “Zakalwe” – but then, what has he put right? The Culture keeps its ultimate weapon, so he can go on killing; Livuetia is still miserable; the Culture itself no better. The dead are still dead, after all. [back]

  12. “Spoilers” or whatever, I guess. But saying I just ruined the ending of Things Fall Apart would be like shouting someone down because you don’t want to accidentally hear how Titanic ends. [back]

  13. And boy, is it fucked up – but that’s for another essay. [back]

  14. Yet somehow, Banks was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Weird. [back]

  15. Which is actually an even better name for the Culture than “the Culture”. [back]

  16. For a particularly interesting discussion by Achebe of this passage and reactions to it, you should listen to this lecture[back]

  17. At least the Iraq war has the pantomime of public inquiry (in the UK anyway) in the person of Lord Chilcott. The Culture is possibly not that self-reflective. [back]

  18. And if that e-dust assassin that goes all Harris and Klebold on the Chelgrians at the end of Look to Windward is any indication, then it says nothing good. Banks doesn’t even try to pretend it’s anything but revenge, and the fact that the Culture has developed a sentient, weaponized Veleek-type thing in the first place is pretty fucking terrifying. [back]

  19. A physical remedy is the best she can do, anyway. Even the wizards of the Culture have limitations – both real and self-imposed – sometimes. Would a Mind really never reach into a human brain to repair psycological damage? And if so, what does that say about them? Small comfort that they consider the brain invoilable, when they’re happy to fuck your local civic infrastructure. [back]

  20. “The bomb lives only as it is falling” applies as strongly to Diziet as it does to “Zakalwe”. [back]

  21. Was it two or three times she had presented him to the sister of the real, murdered Zakalwe, and watched that other woman’s horror at the man standing before her, never once thinking “oh, maybe I shouldn’t torture this stranger in this way, just to get what I want”? [back]

  22. Banks makes it very clear that “Zakalwe” never dies at the end of Use of Weapons: first, because Zakalwe reappears, in various guises, across the Culture books (I count him in Player of Games and Surface Detail at the very least, and there was another appearance I can’t quite remember now) and second, because it is explicitly understood through details of Use of Weapons epilogue and prologue – the length of his hair – that he survives his aneurysm. [back]

  23. He is one of the most interesting Culture people, precisely for his chauvinism and insistent heteronomativity in a society that purports to reject both wholly. (Although – to go back to Banks’s poverty of imagination – it’s interesting that whenever they want to have children, the Culture’s oh-so-open-minded citizens revert to female-standard and male-standard formulations to do it, although something less gendered is certainly not beyong their biological sciences.) Gurgeh has lines and borders that define his personality, instead of an ever-changing melange of shapes. Where does identity not reside except in the form of one’s own body, and how it interacts with other bodies? Isn’t that the whole point of transgender movements, of drag, of sexual identity? [back]

  24. That William Sadler channels “bored bureaucrat” during the entire scene makes it all the better – really, why is Bashir surprised at all? [back]

  25. All from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Inquisition[back]

  26. To the point that Special Circumstance’s hyper-paranoid use of the most esoteric and secure variants of Marain is a source of idiom and humor among Minds. [back]

  27. Ah, and there’s that normative language again – I guess even Marain, for all the effort the Culture went to to make it free of built-in prejudice, can’t make up for some things. [back]

  28. Although also to Trotsky, which I think is somehow more appropriate. [back]