What will the Gardens of the Righteous that we are building with enthusiasm all over Italy, Europe and on the shores of the Mediterranean, be like in the next years? Will they become a place of collective growth of the society, showing the examples set by the best people who believed in the future of humanity, or will they tell us about tales of people who have acted according to values, which were different – and even opposite – values to those we see emerge in today’s world?
Will they be places of education, that remind us of the loftiest ideals of European culture – the respect of human dignity, hospitality, the value of democracy and peace -, or will they become realms of resistance in the face of possible drifts of the present, or even “happy islands” where people will escape from the world?
Those who govern our countries will be proud of them, or will consider them as obstacles to a nationalist and anti-European drift?
I am scared some will like to honour the Righteous of the past but will tell us that their stories belong to a different past, which has nothing to do with the issues of today’s society.
“Let’s not draw any parallels with our time – I imagine their reaction – today we need new models.” They will not say it openly, but many identify themselves with debatable characters.
Some people are sympathetic to those who use the social networks to stigmatize their enemies and condemning them to public contempt. US President Trump, a product of Steve Bannon’s school, is perhaps the most emulated example of those who love to coarsely attack people with different opinions. The goal is no more reasoning and dialoguing, but inciting the audience to take sides against somebody. People do not argue anymore by an article or a reasoned speech in the Parliament, but by rants that replace any rational discourse. Those who act this way consider the press as a dangerous enemy and see in the rules of democracy and the institutions an obstacle in the way of affirming their own truth.
Then we find those who identify themselves with those who put forward the return to national identities and see in Europe and the super-national institutions the enemy that put peoples’ sovereignty into a crisis. Among the many people who feel the heralds of this mission we find Briton Nigel Farage, the soul of Brexit, Hungarian Viktor Orbán, who branded himself as the herald of the walls against migrants – whom he considers as elements that pollute ethnic pureness -, and the Pole Jarosław Kaczyński, who is trying to bring back Polish nationalism to its past splendour. Seemingly they all, together with Marine Le Pen, Austria’s Sebastian Kurtz of the People’s Party and German Alice Weidel, leader of Alternativ für Deutschland, feel befriended to each other in a common mission of renewal, but the recall to the superiority of their own nation (in Italy, Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni have coined the mantra “Italians first”) represents the first step of a permanent conflict between the states, that will lead to the destruction of Europe. Thus people are incited to see in the conflicts with the others the solutions to all problems. The moral drift that leads people to accept the fascination of violence and even war entails a long apprenticeship.
Finally, we find the supporters of those who present themselves on the public stage as the purest and most honest as opposed to all previous politicians. There is nothing wrong in claiming the validity of one’s own project after an electoral victory. The issue, which has already repeated itself many times over history, is that when you present yourself as the best, as opposed to a democracy of corrupted and social climbers, not only you preclude yourself the opportunity to do things together with the others (a key element, I dare say the salt and the wealth of democracy), but you act politically with the idea of the final score-settling. Those who do not join the game will thus become dangerous enemies, as our President of the Republic experienced when the negotiations for the new government began.
In case you do not recognize your partiality along with the others', you fall into the dangerous discourse of the new politician who takes over representative democracy as the exponent of an unchecked general will. This is how dictatorships and the different kinds of totalitarianism begin. The plurality does exist no more, but only the spokespersons of a people with only one thought. Here lies the current fascination with Rousseau. The proposed e-ballots thus become the expression of a single will that should replace the parliamentary vote. The former is the genuine one, the latter is the corrupted and distorted one.
Thus, how shall we behave in a climate where, as Churchill said, the values which we believed in until yesterday seem overturned and the emerging elites reach a huge consensus when they call society to express rage and hate towards the enemy?
First of all, we should consider that fortunately, the worst has not yet occurred and despite these trends, it is still possible to act to avert the possible degeneration of our time – as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet.
How shall we do this? An important clue comes to us from Etty Hillesum, who invited the resistance fighters to educate the people who took a wrong route. She had understood that those who were about committing evil sooner or later would have paid a heavy price in their mind and reputation.
Thus we must not create walls but explain with a lot of rationality that the culture of the enemy that is fed by fear and the research for easy solutions such as scapegoats, leads to the war of all against all and to personal unhappiness.
Personally, when I meet on Facebook people who spread fake news and go to the hunt of enemies to despise, I refrain from rage and I try to reply kindly and softly, in order to invite my interlocutor to a rational reasoning. To those who see Europe as their enemy, fall prey to the nationalist discourse and perceive the world around as an obstacle in the way to their freedom I always remind that the European community, with all its faults, has granted us two achievements that most people in the world have not been able to experience: peace and democracy.
Europe, in the two world wars, has produced terrible monsters: nationalism that caused millions of deaths in the trenches, and totalitarianism, that caused the extermination of Jews and the persecution of millions of people in the Soviet Gulags.
We have come out of this abyss because the European community has broken down the national barriers, the walls of the communist empire, and it has gotten us used to seek sharing and dialogue between different peoples. Should the European network fall apart, I always try to explain, the rule of the stronger leading to conflicts and clashes would prevail again.
But is all this enough? Are our speeches enough, or do they run the risk of remaining unheeded preaches?
I believe we need to reason on two key elements, without which fear and anxiety could ignite the worst instincts among the people.
First of all, we should be able to pass on the dream of a new future.
My generation, after the war, has grown up with the ideas of freedom, peace, social justice. It suffered, it ran risks, it committed very serious mistakes, but in the mid of huge contradictions, many people have grasped the meaning of their existence in this world.
Today, suddenly there seems to be a vacuum pushing people to close within themselves and seeking the magic solution in their ego, their family, their nation, ethnic or religious group. Thus, those who are perceived to be obstacles in the way of their own sovereignty are identified as the enemy. And paradoxically, in the face of the enemy, as it has always happened at war, many find again the solidarity of their groups. This leads to hating the others and loving our fellows, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noticed. The rabbi defined this as altruistic evil. It is not by chance that those who sow panic and fear of the migrants start from the love for the Italians.
It is hence this vacuum that need be filled with a new kind of ideal and a political-existential proposal able to face the issues of our times. Global solidarity should be the starting point, because today unless the human kind tackles the issues of climate change, pollution, migrations, development in Africa as a whole, our earth runs the risk of becoming more and more inhospitable, if not at all unliveable. We must rediscover the taste of feeling world citizens beyond our own origins, faith and nation because never like today communications and globalization enable us to understand that we all belong to just one place: our planet.
Let’s only think about how photography changed. Once, wide-angle enabled us to photograph a broader horizon, now we can all photograph the earth from up above by the means of drones. It is thus easier to feel part to something greater and at the same time to perceive our finiteness in the face of images of endless galaxies and new planets, which satellites send us from the space.
By training ourselves to look at the world from above, as suggested by Pierre Hadot, the great French scholar of ancient philosophy, we feel the narrow-mindedness of those who live with the idea of the enemy, and we are more bound to smile in the face of the limits and shortcomings of human beings. The recognition of our common fragility leads us to rediscover the taste of solidarity. Our power, as Baruch Spinoza wrote, is solely fulfilled by cooperating with each other.
We are lucky because we live in Europe, where albeit among many difficulties we have experienced since the postwar period the advantages of peace and cooperation.
Now though it’s time to redesign the future of Europe, by developing common decision-making spheres and bringing about the democratic participation of European citizens in the political and economic choices. Let’s feel proud again to be European, as our community with its history and culture can give a great contribution to global solidarity, becoming an extraordinary driving force for the promotion of democracy worldwide, genocide prevention, and to prompt nations to engage in the great struggle for the survival of the earth in the face of climate change.
But how to plan and accomplish these dreams in the face of so many behaviours we notice in society and politics?
We should get used to living our daily lives with the taste of solidarity, friendship, dialogue, forgiveness, never viewing the others as our enemies, but rather as parts of us. Writer Wlodeck Goldkorn wrote in La Repubblica that, in the face of such overturn of all values from Budapest to Warsaw and Tel Aviv, many people have gotten used to living in a bubble of privilege, ghettoizing themselves, meeting only in some restaurants and with people who have the same tastes, not caring about the rest of the world. They live in a sort of a golden island, escaping reality and thus trying to feel better. It cannot work, because you can never be happy in a world that is unhappy, and even though you close yourself in protected spaces, what happens outside influences your life.
This is not the best prospect for a moral resistance. The stake should be different. Behaving in a certain way means breaking indifference, creating emulation, passing on to others our hope to push society toward a new beginning. We can be proud of showing that a virtuous behaviour is possible when we look at the world. Otherwise, it is only an escape, although it may seem pleasant.
As Spinoza taught to us, the positive emulation of good can shatter the negative emulation of hatred and contempt. Virtuous behaviours have a magic strength, not because they are airy-fairy or based on personal sacrifice and renunciation – as many people tend to believe -, but because they represent the best way to live our life, feel wealthier and come closer to happiness. Those who can pass on this human dimension to others by their example, manage to accomplish real miracles, because through their behaviours they can change the people’s attitudes and free them from prejudice and the sterile defence of their ego.
Here is thus the great educational value of the Gardens of the Righteous, which we will go on launching in Europe and the world. They can provide a background to stimulate and bring about in society the positive emulation of goodness, knowledge and wit. We must not imagine them as museums of the Good, but rather as stimuli to act wisely in our daily life. Perhaps we should start a discussion between young people and the visitors of the Gardens. What changed in their lives after discovering a story? Did any spark light up? Personally, I would have never understood how not to get carried away by rage in the face of some stances on Facebook, had I not gotten to know the thought of Etty Hillesum. It is from her that I understood how not to fall into the dynamics of hate and the culture of the enemy, even when we are responding to abuse and injustice. Thus, I imagine that these Gardens could teach young people to reject the language of politicians and journalists who in the public space cause furores with rants and contempt.
Ulysses, told us how Homer, managed to return to Ithaca facing the fury of the gods and impossible challenges using his wit and reason. It is within everybody’s reach because a rational thought leads us to improve and reach the goal.
Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman