Aggressive Humanism

Of democracy’s inability to generate great human rights activists


1. The storm glass of revolution

When Diogenes, with a lit lamp in daylight, stumbled across the market place in his search for a human being (Nietzsche 200:141), or when Christoph Schlingensief put to vote the deportation of immigrants in Vienna (Lilienthal/Philipp 2000) — they were equally animated by the wish to save society. They regarded action-based art as a glass they could fill with all kinds of substances and then safely shake. When the mixture exploded, they referred to the resultant lawless space as the space of art. As certain artistic practices openly seek to threaten the space of politics, artists were often maligned as criminals (comp. Bredekamp 2005:19f). But art did not only catalyze social conflicts, it also sought their solution. Ultimately, art dissolves bans on thinking and acting in order to set to work its highest form: politics.

Core mission of political action-based art: to save society

As acts of political beauty are rare, the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty; ZPS) seeks to recover those acts out of the rivers of history. This essay takes a look at the intellectual grounds out of whose erosion the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit emanated and on whose resurrection it works.

2. Europe’s nihilism in the 21st century

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, master narratives and ideologies have borne a shadowy existence. In 1989, the last great alternative has left the global stage. The first successful democratic revolution on German ground heralded an “end of history“. The appeal of Francis Fukuyama’s book of the same name (Fukuyama 1992, Sloterdijk 2006: 89ff., 171ff.) was the punch line of the missed end: Fukuyama claimed the Western World had reached its historical end without being aware of it. In the story, politicians, intellectuals and artists are standing at a bus stop without realizing that it is in fact the final stop of political visions.
But have philosophy’s sources run dry and are all fundamental political challenges solved? After the expiration of all “isms“ in the 20th century, as Ralf Fücks has recently argued, human rights were “the last remaining utopia“ (Fücks 2011). The simple and yet ingenious concern was to politically anchor and guarantee the value of the human. This idea first took shape in the Human Rights Charta of 1776, 1789 and 1948. Nevertheless, we need to admit that the dream of better policy does not currently not possess a lot of power: the anxiety about the protection of human rights affects German politics — as well as the public — not to the same degree as do anxieties about the national budget, income tax or the dissertations of government officials. The desire to realize this dream has dwindled. How is it possible that in Germany one of the greatest ideas of mankind has become so anemic, passionless, boring and uninteresting?

3. Of democracy’s inability to generate great human rights activists

I want to pose the question even more radically. Democracies are generally convinced of their superiority. But in terms of human rights, German democracy reveals its inability to generate effective human rights activists. Even a regime as unjust as the DDR fared better on this score, producing activists that were substantially more successful in putting politics and the public under pressure. The main tool of German human rights organizations is the press release: it is a space of appellation, protest and rampage. However, the media do not necessarily fight for the content of these stories. A US student movement such as STAND that is committed to fight genocide is lacking in the very country responsible for the worst genocide in human history. The battle against “crimes against human rights“ — a juridical terminus technicus that stands for the most precious challenge of our time — was not even officially organized under state prosecution until 2009 (Böhm/Denso 2009).

Off the records, the ritualized pleas and traditional actions are strongly criticized. But publicly announced skepticism about the general meaningfulnes of human rights activism in Germany, such as those promoted by Sarah Reinke, are rare. Reinke is one of the leading activists that fought against the genocide in Chechnya. The Russians, according to official estimations, are accused of having killed more than half of the population in the two Chechnyan wars of 1990. Reinke attests “a significant failure of international human rights mechanism in the context of Chechnya“ (Reinke 2008:154). In Germany — a country with a population of 80 million — human rights activists barely managed to convince 50 people to march against the official visit of the Russian president. An entire country perished in agony while the German chancellor, in front of the camera, wholeheartedly hugged the person responsible for the mass killing. Reinke quotes the Russian journalist Andrej Babitzij, who was arrested for his news coverage of Chechnya and who was imprisoned in the infamous jail of Tschernokosowo. After the war he proclaimed that he had “lost the belief in the power of information“ (ibid. 146). As human rights activism mainly consists of the acquisition, editing and publication of information, a loss in the power of information is synonymous with a complete impotence of human rights activism. The information was at hand, but it did not manage to cast a spark of resitance. The same happened in the context of the Holocaust, when Peter Bergon in 1943 took out page-wide ads to inform the world about the annihilation of five million Jews. (Wyman/Medoff 2002:37).

Peter Bergson took out ads against the Holocaust in the New York Times

The belief in the power of knowledge as well as the belief in the power of images (Paul 2009:28: Bredekamp 2010:224ff.) was already extinguished in 1994 during the war in Bosnia. David Rieff, Susan Sontag’s son, makes a clear point when he comments on human terror: “Even today many people think that — if the world had just known about the Holocaust — something would have been done to prevent it. But after two years in Bosnia, I think otherwise. If there had been images of the Holocaust in the international world press, the world would have done just as little.“ (Rieff 1995:56f.) Ultimately neither information nor images were able to curtail the horror of genocide.

On the one hand one could be inclined to compare German human rights activists with those human rights activists that fight against dictatorial regimes. In that case, the German activist might seem weak, discouraged and (their value) dubious. On the other hand, however, the passion of the German population seems equally limited when it comes to the stopping of industrial killing machines or to the advocation of protecting the civil population. Inhumanity is spreading on this globe like cancer. The most visible German protests of 2010 focused on the construction of a train station and on dry cask transports. Instead of protecting civilians in war zones, the German foreign minister proudly promoted against genocide interventions in the Security Council. Still, he does not need to fear any sign of civic resistance.

The political assertiveness of the concept of civil society was met with skepticism quite early (Rüb 1999: 57; Dizdarevic 1995: 23, 153; Rieff 1995: 188). As in Plato’s cave, images and news are projected against the inner walls and the cave dwellers actually believe in them (Platon 2004: 515c; Bluhm 2002: 118). The lack of ideas and visions concerning the decisive challenges of the 21st century are unmasked every year in the reports of the Institute of empirical media research (IFEM 2011): in 2010, the four dominant themes in TV news reports were the “Eurocrisis“, “Afganisthan“, the “football championship“ and “winter weather/traffic problems”. Furthermore, we want to remind you of the lawsuit against one weather moderator and the agitation around a project called “Google Street View’. No North- or East- African country was among the twenty most important countries in the German international media coverage (Ruch 2010). The media may like it or not: News-selection is the finest form of national education (Ruch 2010). Around Europe the world is crippled by misery, poverty and terror. But both the media and the political landscape of Germany are solely concerned with domestic issues. It is dreadful to anticipate the judgment of future historians who will look back onto such a widespread self-involvement (Naim 2006: 114, 207; Schiller 2009: 38; Berlin 1981: 181; Ruch 2011).

“Schuld — Die Barbarei Europas” (mikropsychia — European’s barbarism”: A Film of the Center for Political Beauty about the modern disease of outrageous selv-involvement)

The political preoccupation with human rights, the basis for the German constitution, was passed over to the civil society sector. Ever since then Germany fails to create a perceptible resistance against extraterritorial human rights violations. But who else if not the country of Holocaust perpetrators is morally obliged to lead an offensive battle against genocide, human rights violations and unjust regimes?

4. A small sensation

The fight for human rights was always just one thing: life-endangering. The sisters Scholl were executed by the NS regime because they distributed six leaflets against Hitler. Mandelstam, due to one of his poems against Stalin, was first robbed of his liberty and then his life. Today, Russian dissidents are executed in elevators. Chinese oppositionals rot in prison cells. In the Congo, the secret agency displaces human rights activists who then, “unintentionally”, die. Nevertheless, a historical sensation has occured: in Germany, it has become difficult to be imprisoned or killed for distributing leaflets, books or poems. For the first time in history it is possible to publicly organize the fight for human rights. In western states, all suppression of human rights activism has dissapeared. The unified Germany should and could be an eldorado for human rights.

In order to install the constitutional rights that are being guaranteed by these actions, a lot of blood has been shed. The ‘free spaces’ have been created, the laws have been passed, the printing presses have been made available. The only thing missing are the human rights activists themselves.

The last big human rights movement went into a well-deserved retirement after the fall of the Wall. Ever since then the younger generations do not show any sign of wanting to engage in human rights activism. It seems plausible that the serious danger that human rights activists are exposed to and the extent of the political resistance are interconnected. For with the repression, political resistance has vanished. When I attempted to convince organizers of a protest march in Stuttgart to advocate for millions of Congolesian women who were threatened by rape (compare Johnsin 2009:144) instead of marching against the construction of a new train station there, their reaction was equal to an episode that the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore describes in his second Stalin biography.

Therein, the young Stalin is puzzled by the harsh reactions of Siberian ice fishers when they lose one of their fellow men due to ice storms, floodings or attacks of tundra wolves. They explain to Stalin: “Why should we have pity with humans? We can make more of them any time, but try to produce a horse!” (Montefiore 2008: 387) The tragedy of human rights activists that fail to succeed in mobilizing the hearts of the German population for their concerns is similar to the explanation of the Sibirian fishermen.

“Art dissolves bans on thinking and acting in order to
set to work its highest form: politics.”

I had a similar experience with the fund-raiser of a renowned animal rights organisation. When I asked him how likely it would be to make people donate for human rights activism, he argued the following: “An oiled seal from Antarctica is arguably cuter than a raped women in the Congo.” — A few weeks later, the same organisation displayed the face of a lion on posters all over Germany. The ice fishers seem to be right: There are enough human beings. A tiger, on the other hand; try to reproduce an endangered tiger! Even penguins in Antarctica, seals in Alaska or rare bugs in the Schwarzwald have a more efficient lobby in Germany than all of the endangered humans together. This insight turns the small sensation into a historical scandal.

5. The great schools for human rights

Two things are perplexing the political observer: the lack of passion in terms of the poilitcal battle for human rights and the inability of German democracy to create prominent human rights activists or human rights movements. I would thus argue that there is a lack of “schools“ that would be able to teach the meaningfulness of human rights. In fact, the significance of human rights can barley be studied anymore in the Western Civilization.

In order to understand the explosiveness of “violations of human rights“ — that violate so much more than just the rights, obviously — one has to travel to those parts of this world that have remained unaffected by this idea. The great schools that seems to be able to awaken the passion for human rights carry the names of dissociated states: Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Congo, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan. The most fatal genocides of the 20th century are suitable to articulate the drama of human devastation: the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya. The list is not complete. The East African inferno is also predestined to demonstrate the absolute priority of human life over all train station-constructions and data protections. While development workers, human rights activists and medical doctors have gone through these schools (Neudeck 1986), there is a lack of philosophers who could formulate their emotional powers; except for a very few exceptions. (Lévy/Ferrari 1994, Ziegler 2007: 10). War is a “tough teacher“ in the pursuit of political beauty. (Thukydides 2000: III, 82; Münkler 1987: 32).

Those who travel to the “enclaves of lawlessness“ (Naim 2006: 42) — and be it in books or documentary features, will experience a feeling that cannot easily be forgotten: acknowledging the significance of human rights, for whose it is worth to fight and die for. Compared to the political tasks in third-world countries, the West has solved all fundamental problems. Nothing less was articulated by Francis Fukuyama in his much-debated thesis of the end of history. The anxiety about pension systems, weather moderators and mortgagee interest rates seem grotesque if you juxtapose them with the concerns with a human being who is stuck in a refugee camp in the west of Darfur.

Two developments lead to the hypothesis that the 21st century will be even worse than the 20th century when it comes to the number of victims: [1.] The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and [2.] the fast population growth in Africe and Asia. Günther Anders desribed the technical progress under the term hatelessness: he drew attention to the fact that the feelings of hatred and rage had no longer been relevant for modern warfare. The modern soldier pushed a button with which he set off the bomb that killed 200.000 people. This power of one button was heightened exponentially by technical progress; an action and its effect do not stand in any common relation to one another anymore (Anders 1979:204). Let us take a look at international population growth: whereas in the middle of the 20th century the entire population of this world was less than two billion, it will increase to nine billion by the middle of the 21st century. Both developments seem to support the assumption that the outrageuous number of victims in the 20th century was not just a one-time vertical deviation.

6. Aggressive Humanism

The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit has coined a term that represents our vision of a better fight for human rights: aggressive humanism. Since last year, we have been pursuing this endeavor by means of action-based art. The term aggressive humanism merges two concepts that have commonly been deemed incompatible: European humanism and aggression. Occidental humanism was the epitome of human love, benevolence and friendliness. It vindicated the position of education, love and benevolentia with decidedly friendly means. The latter point is shared by the human rights movements of today with traditional forms of humanism: the protagonists are characterized by an exaggerated, almost unbearable friendliness. They do not fight for human rights, they slumber for them. And this despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people have to die miserably. Instead of organizing strikes, blocking streets, confronting politicians and occupying news agencies, today’s human rights activists are part of a group of beach tourists that have been accurately described by the American philosopher Allan Bloom: “For me, our contemporary intellectual atmosphere resonates with the images of those French people who enjoyed the new national holiday on the beach while being totally oblivious to the fact that this holiday was introduced by Léon Blum’s popular front government — that was in 1936, the same year in which Hitler’s reoccupation of the demilitarized Rheinland was commonly approved. All the great things that affect us ultimately lead to such a holiday” (Bloom 1988: 312).

The term aggressive humanism argues that the fight for human rights is being fought in too friendly a fashion. The concept of aggressive humanism points to a group of highly ambitious human rights activists that offer political resistance. As the great human rights activists, such as Varian Fry, Beate Klarsfeld, Soghomon Tehlirian, Peter Bergson or Simon Wiesenthal seem to have disappeared, the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit seeks to restore and exhibit their actions in the “punishment-free” space of art (comp. Bredekamp 2005: 22).

25.000 Euros reward against traders of weapons (art project of the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit at the Berlin Biennal): “The weapon company was puzzled.(…) This time, the surprise was too big, the campaign too radical, the approach too new.”

7. The priviledges of the unaffected

In the late summer of 1940, tens of thousands of people escaped to the French harbor city of Marseille in order to escape the Nazi death squadrons. The one thing the refugees wanted was to leave the European continent. Varian Fry ran an organization that helped this army of disenfranchised people to escape the country — illegally, of course. He and his compatriots saved more than 1.500 writers, intellectuals and artists, among them Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Döblin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Max Ophüls, Heinrich und Golo Mann, Hannah Arendt, André Breton (Meyer/Neumann 2008: 402ff.; Elfe 1995: 299f.). Varian Fry disguised his criminal activities under the mask of an American aid organization. He was in close contact with the underworld — swindlers, forgers of passports, refugee helpers. He bribed public officials, threatened police officers and forged all possible national emblems. Already in 1940, Fry organized the political resistance against Hitler. (Dönhoff 1994, Danyel 2001).

Such an outstanding figure teaches us a lot about our present time. Varian Fry made use of his authority to protect the weak. He used the priviledge of his American citizenship to help around 1.500 people escape the continental death trap. He was a citizen of a powerful and superior statepower. His memoirs, Surrender on Demand, bear witness to the respect that his citizenship has generated (Fry 1995:29). His passport, just a piece of paper, raised him above all the members of the European intelligentsia who were much smarter, more talented and creative than him. But all of those talents had no value in the face of German extremism (Wildt 2003). What counted was that an American risked his life in order to save the lives of thousands of people. Exactly because Fry was so unaffected, he managed to access to ambassadors. Instead of seeking distance, he interfered and sabotaged the most horrific event of the 20th century.

What would Varian Fry do today? For two years Somalia has resembled a sinking ship from which the civil population has tried to escape. What the American passport was for Fry would be a European passport in Somalia: an immense protection. Every year the Department for Foreign Affairs spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to pay the ransoms for abducted Germans in “collapsed states”.

Given the priviledge of his US citizenship, Varian Fry organizes the battle against Hitler and helps thousands of intellectuals, artists and scientists to flee occupied Europe.

Today, German human rights organisations would interpret the high number of Varian Fry’s crimes as a threat to their existence rather than as their legitimation and his violations of the law would be today guarantee his dismissal from any German human rights organization. Even the commonly tolerated means of activism — trespassing, harrasment and property damage — are being refused. Amnesty International, the biggest human rights organization in Germany in terms of members and donation volume, embodies this concept: under no circumstances is the enforcement of political aims a reason to break the law.
This may make them appear very virtuous, but the people in Somalia, Lybia and Chechnya can make no use of it. On the contrary — it even harms those people when German organizations cultivate their noble-minded image at the expense of their political effectiveness. Today’s human rights organisations are content when Western newspapers publish a photo from one of their protest marches (and rarely do they exceed the magical number of 50 protesters). Escape routes, ships, trains, planes, forged passports, bribed officers, save lives — unimaginable!
Fry funneled intellectuals on fish cutters to Marokko. He financially supported thousands of men, women and children. He gave them hope: ‘See you in New York!’ […] the short sentence, spoken with conviction, seemed to restore their belief in the future more than anything else” (Fry 1995:28). Who is responsible for the future of the millions of people in destroyed, occupied and life-threatening Somalia? In 2009, some 74.000 people were brave enough to seek refugee from the country via the ocean to Jemen (UNHCR 2009).

In 2004, Elias Bierdel initiated an effective attempt to create an awareness for the political genesis of the new maritime-European wall-building. A ship of the aid organization Cap Anamur rescued 37 African refugees from the Mediterranean Sea. It took eight days of preparation before the ship could enter the Italian harbor under the attention of the media. Following this event, German media, however, revolted against the alleged staging, self-fashioning and the abuse of 37 refugees (Zekri 2004). Instead of approaching Bierdel’s project as an opportunity to discuss the insupportable European politics of isolation, it was dismissed as “performance”.
As the Cap Anamur did not posit itself as a political but humanitarian organisation, Bierdel eventually had to resign. It did not play an important role for the media, however, that the event only differed slightly from Greenpeace’s legendary campaign against the oilplatform Brent Spar that only a few years before was being celebrated as an environment-activist master-achievement (Baringhorst 1998:189ff.).

8. A humanistic Revolution?

I want to add more fuel to the fire. Since 2009, a pioneer of the human rights movement is leading Greenpeace, the world’s biggest environmental organization. At his inauguration, Kumi Naidoo offered a compelling insight to their new guiding principles: “In the battle for human rights, people have always been willing to go to jail or risk their life.” (Traufetter 2009: 147)

Naidoo himself almost died when he went on a hunger strike as a protest against the Mugabe Regime in Zimbabwe. The cry of a “political battle”, he explained in a different context (Naidoo 2010: 14; 52) was never nice but always serious. A failure in the protection of humans was a personal loss for him; it was equal to choosing the wrong means. His idea to sacrifice his life in the battle for political justice — especially when the rights of third parties were at stake — is an idea that is known from the history of knives (Keen 1991: 232, 242). The selfless sacrifice to protect third parties, i.e. free of German interests, once separated the great souls from the common ones (Aristoteles 2002a: 1122 a18f.; 1124 b7; 1168 a32; Aristoteles 2002b: 1390 b15f.; Alexiou 1995: 212).

A human rights activist as the leader of Greenpeace: “In the fight for human rights, people were always willing to go to jail or to risk their life.”

With Kumi Naidoo, an aggressive humanist has entered the stage of political activism. He fights the battle for human rights with great passion and we should be curious to learn about his future. The great question that he poses, in fact, is the legitimization of the means we use for our fight. How far can we really go in the battle against rapists, arsonists and mass murderers? The question, therefore, is not only if we will witness the storming of news agencies, the occupation of the office of the chancellor or acts of sabotage in the name of the Sudanesian civil society. The right question also tackles the existence of bombers — not for the holy Koran, but for the General Declaration of human rights.

When on April 2, 1968 three explosive devices went off in German shopping malls, it manifested the desire to use violence as a means of protest. Even though the bombs caused little damage, the protest action and the subsequent trial against Gudrin Enssling and Andreas Bader caused an outcry in the otherwise so disinterested public. Especially the motive of the perpetrators was sensational. The bombers did not protest because they wanted to destroy the building or because of their own money problems, but because they were distraught by the widespread usage of napalm against Vietnamese civil society. Whereas the public simply averted its attention from the horrors of warfare, Baader and Ensslin wanted to make the systemactic burning of civil society a central matter of public interest. The social concealment of injustice and blocked opportunities to participate eventually radicalized the perpetrators into terrorists. The three shopping mall bombs, however, initially only repudiated the conviction that the war in Vietnam was of no business to Germany. Baader and Ensslin used the bombs as a last means of making the public interested in something that simply no one cared about.
As Baader’s and Ensslin’s foundation of the RAF proved that they were not interested in human rights, this comparison seems problematic. Nevertheless, their early actions shed light onto a certain approach to the meaning of “resistance”. Jürgen Grässlin seeks another approach: since 27 years, he tries everything to stop the scientific endeavor of armor engineers who attempt to make “technologies of killing” even more lethal (Bühler/Kohlenberg 2007). Grässlin has imposed a strict prohibition of violence in his protests. Instead of bombing German shopping malls, he buys shares of armor indutries to gain the right to speak at shareholder assemblies and to dismantle their crimes. Of course, one could simply organize a demonstration in front of the headquarters of a big company. Jürgen Grässlin, however, wants to make an impact in the center of evil without having to be violent. The innovativeness and resourcefulness in conceptualizing new, surprising and effectful resistance makes Grässlin a model for the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit. Ensslin and Bader reacted to the outrageous injustice with violence. In infavourable historical moments, such acts of violence cause the uprising of radical parties — as has happened with the Reichstag-burning and its political occupation by the NSDAP. Jürgen Grässlin’s violence-free protest, on the other hand, targets the heart of the public in order to have an impact.

9. What is political beauty?

Let us assume that a historian, at the end of the 21st century, will look back at our time: why did we not stand up more radically for the rights of the oppressed? Whereas a Congolesian human rights activits needs a lot of courage, a German activist only needs the feeling of being able to change something. Future generations will not understand why we did not use the means that were at hand to stop war, executions, rape and hunger. The fact that German politics are not popular is due to a factor that is generally underestimated in social science: political beauty. Our objective is in fact predestined to build people of exceptional moral quality; politicians that shape their actions according to moral and historical beauty. Willy Brandt, when he was falling on his knees in Warschau, won the hearts of two nations. In West Sudan, in the regions of Darfur, around 2.3 million people are suffering in refugee camps. They are the infamy of our approach to humanism. These refugees need a political solution. An act of political beauty would consist in the next chancellor’s legacy of defining the solution of this problem. In comparison with the possibilities at hand for Varian Fry, it would be very easy to settle Sudanesian, African, French and Arab interests.

Politics can only deconstruct political disinterest if it takes the factor of political beauty seriously and if decisions and actions are being shaped accordingly. Centers of power dry out if they do not think about political poetry (Münkler 2009: 266). The human soul needs the feeling of greatness, beauty, justice and decency. These crucial feelings may not be stirred up by the politization of social security, retirement system and health care. It could be achieved, however, by the global protection of human rights. In a country of political beauty, the members of parliament fighting for human rights are being held in the highest regard and human rights organisations are not dependent upon acts of despair to find listeners. That may sound “too beautiful to be true”? — This is the concrete substance of the pursuit of political beauty.

Detail of the Pillar of Shame (Center for Political Beauty, 2010) comemorating the victims of the Srebrenica genocide and attacking the United Nations.

Translation: Barbara Juch

Original German version: Aggressiver Humanismus. Von der Unfähigkeit der Demokratie, große Menschenrechtler hervorzubringen

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