12 May 2023

No Bad Surprises

So, what awful stuff do you want me to write about in this week’s editorial? So much to pick from. Let’s see: There is Donald Trump, a sentenced sexual predator now without, it seems, that denting in the slightest in his prospects of returning to the White House next year? Or the fact, perhaps, that access to asylum is effectively being abolished in Europe, our precious left-wing traffic light coalition eagerly participating, the opposition of the Greens is virtually zero, and meanwhile the big issue in Germany is the federalism question who picks up the bill for the cost of receiving those who made it over the big wall alive? Then there is of course EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who will be most likely given a second term, with only nostalgics and Manfred Weber still muttering about the Spitzenkandidaten process and a silent consensus emerging in politics, the public and academia to simply no longer bother the European Union with constitutional issues at all in these difficult times?

I don’t know about you, but honestly: I don’t want to. It’s so depressing. My reflex would be make a scandal, a meta-scandal, so to speak, out of this sullen give-me-a-break indifference, as I’ve done quite often already, in fact. But I don’t want to do that either.

My daughter Theresa recently gave me a famous essay by the late literary scholar and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick with the wonderful title Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You. For decades, Sedgwick argues, critical intellectuals have engaged in a practice of exposing and denouncing and debunking and criticising and demystifying and denaturalising awful things, which she calls paranoid. Not because it’s delusional, these awful things do not exist or are actually not awful. They do, and they are. This practice is paranoid in another, not necessarily pathological sense: its characteristic is that it is subject to the imperative that there must be no bad surprises. The possibility of a bad surprise would itself be a bad surprise. Bad news must always be known in advance. The critical paranoiac wants to anticipate all bad things, to get ahead of them, to make herself their author, so to speak, at the expense of all other possible things. To do this, she creates theories that connect ever more distant things, at the expense of weaker and more descriptive theories, to the point where there is little more left of her super-strong theory than an empty tautology: it applies to everything, ergo what it applies to is everything. And it is always a negative affect, anticipated pain, that these theories are concerned with minimising, at the expense of the possibility of sometimes also maximising positive affects for a change.

The practice of this theory is exposure: The critical paranoiac must expose what she knows about the anticipated pain, bring it to light, speak out loudly and make publicly known what is hidden and concealed. In this, she is related to the profession to which I belong: journalism, the most paranoid profession imaginable. We share the belief that all you have to do is expose and publicise the awful things, the anticipated pain, and then somehow everything will get better. Which in fact is anything but evident. What if the awful things are not hidden and concealed at all, but rather seek out the public, purposefully and very successfully of their own accord, can’t get enough of it, virtually wallow in it? What is there left to expose about Viktor Orbán that has not been known for a long time, not to mention Donald Trump? How can one expose in a meaningful way what every fool and his mother already knows and was supposed to know in the first place? Everyone has seen those pictures of dead refugees already, so what is left to show? Every few months, some investigative team, busy as a beehive for months, unveils yet another piece of evidence of the villainy of this or that powerful and rich person, after which everything goes on exactly as before. Perhaps it is not so surprising after all in this under-pressure of exposure in which we live that more and more flatearthers and pizzagaters and other paranoiacs seem to be drifting into actual pathological states of mind.

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Of course, some degree of paranoia is a necessary and valuable thing, I don’t deny that. Bad things happen all the time, and of course one has to write it down and expose it and make it public. As the wise Kurt Cobain taught us: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. For me personally, paranoia is way too deeply rooted in my system to ever get rid of it even if I wanted to. For every good editorial, I actually have to go through at least one acute paranoid episode in which I shudder and moan in anticipation of how I will experience the most horrible surprises when this or that imaginary super-well-read and super-intelligent critic sinks her teeth into my cleverly written thoughts. If I don’t and everything I write is just great all by itself, I get highly suspicious. That can’t be good. And usually it isn’t. It’s probably just crap then. (And there I sit on it once again, as I am doing right now, until well after midnight).

But the bad thing about paranoia is that it makes you forget that there is anything else. There is, though. There are good surprises. There are weak and descriptive theories. There are positive affects. Playfulness, close observing and describing, maximising pleasure: I don’t see how these are necessarily less potent journalistic methods of confronting awful things than the constant paranoid exposure of anticipated pain. Following Eve Sedgwick, the Nirvana theorem can simply be turned around: Just because they’re after you don’t mean you gotta be paranoid.

Mind you, it is not complacency and sunshine I am talking about, quite the opposite. Sedgwick begins her essay remembering a conversation with sociologist Cindy Patton in the 1980s, in the midst of the horrific first decade of the AIDS epidemic, when rumours started to circulate that the HIV virus was brought into the world by a conspiracy or an out-of-control experiment by the US military, possibly even deliberately and on purpose. Not impossible, Patton said, but she had trouble getting interested in these theories. That black lives have no value in the eyes of the United States, that gays and drug users are considered expendable or even exterminable, that the military is researching ways to kill non-combatants it sees as enemies, that the powerful are unperturbed by the prospect of catastrophic events for the environment and the population – what do we know, if we know that, which we didn’t already know?

There is also another affect, by no means particularly sunny, which is rendered invisible by paranoid practice, but which seems to me to play a major role in these times in particular: sadness and grief. I wrote about this observation (again, coming from my daughter Theresa) the other day in my report from Lützerath: Among the young climate activists, much more pronounced than the paranoid fear of bad surprises, the striving to minimise anticipated pain and the anger at being kept from doing so, seems to me to be sadness and grief. Grief is not about something that was bound to happen, that has or could have or should have been known in advance by virtue of the great exposing theory. Grief is about things that wouldn’t have to be that way. Things that could have turned out quite differently.

This could perhaps also help to understand the lack of understanding with which people of my age and older tend to look at the Last Generation and its protests. You have to win over people for your cause, we 50-year-old paranoids like to lecture those young climate activists. What truck driver are you going to win over by glueing yourselves to the tarmac right in front of him? The premise that this truck driver, if he only knew what is concealed from him, might change his mind, already has something thoroughly paranoid about it. But those youths glued to the streets of Berlin, unlike their nowadays hardly visible Greenpeace activist daddies and mommies in their days, are not about exposing any artfully concealed truth, but simply and quite unparanoidly use their heavy, resistant, tough bodies as means of protest. Our failure to stop climate change and species extinction is not so much evidence of an oppressive practice that needs to be explained, exposed and denounced by a heavy chunk of critical theory, but simply very, very sad.

My fellow male quinquagenarian Robert Habeck finds all this quite incomprehensible and highly superfluous and counterproductive and is in the meantime whining loudly about the “campaign” wielded against him and his Under-Secretary Patrick Graichen by the thoroughly paranoid CDU/CSU opposition and the conservative press and the fossil fuel lobbyists. Oh, my dear Federal Minister of Climate Protection: Was that seriously a bad surprise for you?

The week on Verfassungsblog

… summarised by PAULA SCHMIETA:

The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency’s (EUFRA) task is to collect and analyse data on fundamental rights in order to safeguard these. In Hungary, however, the FRA is now collaborating with institutions controlled by the Orbán regime – BALÁZS MAJTÉNYI, JÚLIA MINK & ZSOLT KÖRTVÉLYESI, all former EUFRA contributors, therefore sound the alarm.

Why do eastern European states decide to celebrate the end of World War II on the 8th of May instead of the 9th of May? DOVILĖ SAGATIENĖ & ANDRII NEKOLIAK take stock of the legal measures taken in Lithuania and Ukraine to countervail what they call ‘Russia’s […] mnemo-political aggressiveness’.

The EU wants to make border procedures in asylum processing mandatory while permitting first-entry states to derogate once ‘adequate capacity’ is reached. VASILIKI APATZIDOU explains why this won’t fix the EU’s broken system of responsibility sharing.

The Doñana National Park in Spain is the latest example of conflicting social and environmental interests. TERESA M. NAVARRO explores how the tensions between local fruit farmers and environmental protection plays out politically and constitutionally between Spain’s autonomous communities and the central government.

Kai Wegner, Berlin’s new mayor, spoke of a ‘tactical masterpiece’ on the part of the police in connection with the 1st of May demonstrations in Berlin. EMMA SAMMET disagrees, saying that such ‘confining demo escorts’ leave very little of the freedom of assembly.

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Ten years after the deadly garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, the first ever complaint under the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains (Lieferkettensorgfaltspflichtengesetz) was filed. MARKUS KRAJEWSKI & SHUVRA DEY investigate the complaint and assess the allegations against Amazon and IKEA of failing to exercise due diligence.

50 years ago, the Indian Supreme Court created the basic structure doctrine – which influenced jurisdictions around the world. ANMOL JAIN commemorates that moment and explains the importance of the doctrine – that is currently under attack from the BJP government – for India’s democracy.

What happened in Brazil since the riots in its capital on the 8th of January? EMILIO PELUSO NEDER MEYER & THOMAS BUSTAMANTE offer an account of the legislative, executive and judicial developments – according to them the road back to normality is still long.

Last Sunday, Chile’s far-right won the elections for the country’s constitutional council. Considering the council’s task of drafting a new constitution, RODRIGO KAUFMANN explains why constitutional politics in Chile are necessary and impossible at the same time.

Is the Taiwanese ‘Digital Intermediary Services Act’ a global trailblazer for democratising platform governance? KUAN-WEI CHEN & YOU-HAO LAI shed light on the proposal and consider how it may facilitate user participation and thus improve platform governance.

Finally: our blog debate The Future of the European Security Architecture: A Debate Series dedicated to the case Ligue des Droit Humains and the PNR Directive began this week with contributions from CHRISTIAN THÖNNES, STEFAN SALOMON, ELSPETH GUILD & EVELIEN BROUWER, CHRISTIAN THÖNNES & NIOVI VAVOULA, JANNEKE GERARDS, DIDIER BIGO & STEFAN SALOMON, THORSTEN WETZLING, ELSPETH GUILD & TAMAS MOLNAR, AMANDA MUSCO EKLUND & MAGDALENA BREWCZYŃSKA, EVELIEN BROUWER, CHLOÉ BERTHÉLÉMY, CHRISTIAN THÖNNES & NIOVI VAVOULA and DANIEL MÜGGE.

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That’s it for this week. Next week there is a holiday in Germany, so the editorial will pause. In the meantime, all the best to you!

And please don’t forget to donate!

Max Steinbeis

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A previous version of this editorial contained a factual error regarding the civil, not criminal sentence against Donald Trump, which has been corrected now.


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