Dario Cavegn: The intellectual crisis and editors’ internal conflict (44)

(Image: Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc)
By Dario Cavegn
9/10/2016 9:26 AM
Category: Opinion

Iivi Anna Masso’s piece published on Sept. 6 is unfit for publication. ERR News editor Dario Cavegn explains this verdict, and why it ended up getting published anyway.

Sometimes we have to compromise. In this case, we’re looking at a comment written by a professional political analyst, who we could assume is in a better position to talk about the migration crisis than plenty of other people. That gives us a reason to try and take seriously what she writes.

But we are also looking at a piece that oozes with generalizations and prejudice, doesn’t argue the points it makes, contradicts itself — and was polished in translation to the point where it no longer reflects the tone struck in the original.

Far too often we talk about the quality of a debate when we should really be asking ourselves whether or not we’re looking at a debate at all. What passes as an “argument” today can range from perfectly serious and informed contributions to lazy rants. The quality of the publications that carry them is defined by which end the editor choses to endorse. Go for the hard-hitting serious argument, you might end up somewhere really highbrow. Go for cheap rants, and you’re with the yellow press.

Iivi Anna Masso’s opinion piece, despite being hailed by commentators below and above the fold as a better contribution to the immigration debate than most others, is at the wrong end as far as a publication is concerned that would like to be taken seriously.

Masso’s initial point is that “substantive discussion” of the issue of immigration into Europe is “hampered by idealists’ attempts to brand as xenophobic” anyone in favor of more controlled migration.

So, in short: She complains that “idealists” generalize too much.

But who are these idealists? Far-left NGOs handing out soup on the Greek border? Are we talking about EU officials? Certain journalists? Or German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

As long as we dismiss the question who these idealists are, what Masso does is take the easy way out by making a general statement that could refer to anyone — even if they only existed in someone’s imagination.

Where’s the substantive discussion here, I wonder.

No evidence, no argument, and never mind accuracy

The refusal to deal with any part of her argument in detail dominates Masso’s piece. She keeps pointing out that the “European cultural space” needs protection. Beyond a short list of what she calls liberal values, such as gender equality, freedom of religion and expression, tolerance, and minorities’ rights, she doesn’t go into too much detail.

What the European cultural space is isn’t so well established that it is past debate. On the contrary, by refusing to say what exactly she means, Masso uses the term as a container for anything that you, dear reader, might understand to be part of it. And that is not what you would expect a serious argument to do.

This goes along with the impression she creates that all she writes about is only happening now. We’re looking at a bit of a recency illusion here; as Masso says, the topic is still a bit of an abstract concept in this part of Europe, obviously to her as well. Because a fact worth mentioning here would be that immigrants from Turkey as well as other states, and from lots of different ethnic groups, have been part of everyday life in hundreds of European cities and towns since at least the 1960s.

Germany has more than half a century of experience with the immigration of Muslims. Granted, perhaps not with the arrival of tens of thousands at once. But certainly with tens of thousands over just a few years.

If Masso is on to something, this should have spelled doom for Germany. But did it really change anything? Have the Germans lost any one of their constitutional freedoms since the advent of Turkish immigration in the 60s? Have they lost any of their rights due to the influence of Islam? Has anyone in an EU member state?

I’m not talking about the perceived freedoms that we can make up or dismiss as we please. I’m talking about the only freedoms we can discuss based on fact, about those defended by laws.

Masso’s piece doesn’t specify. It doesn’t specify any threat to any values. It doesn’t specify where Islamism is supposedly succeeding. In fact, it doesn’t bring up a single argument to support what she claims.

And because it doesn’t, the idea suggests itself that Masso isn’t so much interested in the principles and values behind the laws that protect our freedoms, but much rather in expressing that she really doesn’t appreciate all these people coming here.

Which is a perfectly fair point! Even at the most extreme end, “I hate everything Muslim” is a fair statement to make. It is legal to make it, and making it corresponds to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so on.

But it isn’t an argument. It doesn’t do the job.

You can insist on it, but whether or not you’re taken seriously in the context of an educated debate is a different matter. To be taken seriously, a line-up of statements, no matter how many foreign words they include and how appealing they might sound, doesn’t do the trick.

The trouble this implies for the editor who has to decide whether or not to publish the piece is simple. The serious terms she uses notwithstanding, Masso’s collection of unsubstantiated arguments is limited to that of any right-wing commentator writing for an audience that has long abandoned common sense and rational argument, and that can be counted on to cheer along no matter what.

And ERR News can’t be a platform for this kind of message.

But this isn’t the worst part of it yet —

Softened in translation

The final version of the translation as submitted to ERR News diverges from the Estonian original in a few interesting points.

The differences include changes like turning the statement that there are 400 million “Arabs” into the more accurate 400 million “speakers of Arabic.”

It also turns “the Jews” of the original into “the Jewish refugees.”

This matters, because what was fixed here was Masso’s consistent use of terms in their most general meaning. The more you use them like this, the more your language sounds like you’re ranting. It suggests that you can’t be bothered to differ.

The translation also turns the word “hate” into “oppose” where Masso talks about Islamist attitudes towards Western society.

All of this not only means that Masso’s opinion piece is entirely devoid of any clear and reasonable argument, it also doesn’t reflect the tone anymore in which it contributed to the Estonian debate surrounding the migration crisis.

In short, what is sold to the reader as informed commentary by a political analyst is actually just another cheap anti-immigration rant. And we are not in the business of publishing those.

Why publish the piece anyway?

And there’s the conflict, because Masso makes valid points. Should immigrants have to acknowledge the social and political values of the countries they’re moving to? Isn’t it absurd that Europe should be the place where the crises in their various countries of origin should be dealt with?

Should we make concessions when it comes to the defense of women’s rights; of gender equality; of everyone’s right to live as they please within the limits of the law, without religious belief playing into the social and legal order?

Is it acceptable that any member of a society should have to live with limitations, threats, or abuse arising from the fact that there are groups that refuse to accept the order set out by it?

In the opinion of this editor, these are good and important points that aren’t discussed often enough.

That’s where the problem of quality comes in. All of these points can be argued reasonably. They can be backed up systematically. They can be put forward without vitriol, without prejudice, without generalization. They can be presented as an argument.

But this would force an author to spend time and make an effort, both of which, apparently, Masso decided against doing. And so her piece, from the point of view of quality, isn’t a contribution to a debate in any way.

While ERR News can’t be a platform for rants, there is the somewhat disillusioning fact that Masso’s piece reflects the level of the local debate surrounding the migration crisis quite accurately, where real arguments backed up by evidence often fall short.

There is also the fact that the perceived threat of Islamism is a recent phenomenon in this part of Europe, and that seeing and hearing what is going on in the rest of the world, many here wish this rest would keep its distance.

In the right context and considering the points she makes in it, Masso’s piece can help explain why banning burqa and headscarf can be a topic in a country as white as Europe gets these days. And that’s why it was published in spite of its shortcomings.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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