“Am I a stubborn and emphatic democrat? Should I be one?” Jan Philipp Reemtsma asked himself and by extension his audience that gathered on January 9 in the former living room of Nobel prizewinning author Thomas Mann. In his talk at the Thomas Mann House in Pacific Palisades, CA, Reemtsma explored questions around whether and why democracy is worth defending.
After Francis Fukuyama, Jan Philipp Reemtsma was the second speaker in the series 55 Voices for Democracy to host a public event at the Thomas Mann House. Building on the legacy of Thomas Mann’s monthly radio speeches against the Nazi regime, the series brings together internationally-esteemed intellectuals, scientists, and artists to present ideas for the renewal of democracy in our own troubled times. In his talk, the esteemed German publicist and scholar spoke about democracy and emphatic language.
Using the works of philosopher Judith Shklar, Reemtsma delivered a stirring case, praising democracy as a form of political self-protection, for its guarantee of basic rights and an environment that helps develop pluralistic societies and serves the potentials of its individuals. In a time of unprecedented peace and safety in Europe, Reemtsma saw much to be optimistic about in our democratic societies and championed a view of democracy that he called “defensive, but not weak.” Of course, Reemtsma concluded, we can disagree with his outline of democracy, but a discussion of what democracy is supposed to be like will only be possible on the safe grounds he tried to outline.
Following the speech, Christina Bellantoni from the University of Southern California, engaged Reemtsma in a conversation before opening up to questions from the audience. Bellantoni pointed the current situation in the US where an election year seemed to be defined by an general sense of fear and instability. Jan Philipp Reemtsma looked at these issues with poise: “future has always been marked by uncertainty.” Compared to the 1940s or the time of the Cold War, Reemtsma perceived today’s situation as rather comfortable. Bellantoni, an award-winning journalist, also asked about the role of Thomas Mann as a prominent citizen and intellectual. Instead of discussing all of Mann’s oeuvre, Jan Philipp Reemtsma focused on Mann’s radio speeches Deutsche Hörer! (Listen, Germany!) broadcast by the BBC, underlining the importance of a celebrated German voice from exile. To Reemtsma, Mann embodied a German with the eyes of the outside world, but still a fellow countryman, who too was concerned and afraid for the situation. This perspective was relatable and yet a stark reminder of how Germany was perceived at the time.
For the final part of the evening, the speaker took questions from the audience and what ensued was a lively and eloquent exchange of ideas that spilled over into the reception after the event.
Invoking the philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of liberty, one audience member pointed out the lack of “freedom to” in Reemtsma’s discussion of democracy. He agreed but also pointed out that for him, “freedom from” was the underwriting principle necessary to advance any discussion of “freedom to” in the first place. To the question, why so many people seemed to express a disinterest in democracy and how to make the system more appealing, Jan Philipp Reemtsma responded, that citizens are allowed to be exhausted or indifferent. A vital aspect of democracy is exactly that nobody is forced to become a political element, unlike in totalitarian regimes where political participation is not voluntary. Finally, Jan Philipp Reemtsma returned to democratic Europe and expressed his hopes that the last half century of relative peace might become a prefigurative example of what is possible through democracy: “Don’t deny progress where there is some.”