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European Ideas on Interview with Leonidas Donskis

10th July 2012

MEP Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a philosopher, political theorist, historian of ideas, social analyst, and political commentator. As a public figure in Lithuania, he acted as a defender of human rights and civil liberties. In 2004, Donskis has been awarded by the European Commission the title of the Ambassador for Tolerance and Diversity in Lithuania.

European Ideas: Do you think that public intellectuals and politicians can have the same goal but per se use different means? What is your overriding goal in the European Parliament and does it inherently differ from the aims you attempted to achieve as political activist?

Leonidas Donskis: I believe you provided quite an accurate description. Very much so: public intellectuals and politicians may have the same goals, yet they are bound to use different means to pursue and achieve them. Whatever the case, I would not overplay the supposed abyss between them, as I, even now when I act as a politician, rather than as a social activist, use persuasion and social criticism much in the same manner as I was using them prior my election to the EP. I act as a columnist, political commentator and social critic, yet I immediately switch to political instruments when it comes to the defense of politically persecuted human rights defenders in Russia and Kazakhstan or of human rights lawyers disbarred in China. Writing, persuasion, criticism, and preventive measures – that is, quite predictable and even routine democratic practice – in EU countries and other democracies, yet immediate political action when we are confronted by tyrannies with their disdain for human life, human rights, and human dignity.  

European Ideas: Debating issues of tolerance, in general, at the European Parliament – a problem of compromise? Or is it a necessary vital topic to be addressed for the European project?

L. D.: I firmly believe that no compromise is possible on the ethical grounds when it comes to human rights. To be forgiving and less demanding only due the fact that human rights are violated in a democracy or in a friendly country is the last thing a human rights defender and a liberal in particular should do. If we become selective and single out only those countries that we dislike on ideological or partisan grounds, turning the blind eye on those that are closer to us, we are at the peril of becoming a travesty. Compromise is needed only when we negotiate some technical and economic aspects of cooperation or foreign policy issues, but it becomes a liability, rather than an asset, immediately if we seek it in the human rights defense area. There is little, if any at all, poetry in this undertaking: human rights belong to the area of difficult prose of daily life and indispensable routine liberal practice without which democracy would cease functioning. The European project is unthinkable without human rights and their fundamental primacy and priority over all practical and pragmatic aspects of policy making. Otherwise, we will be at grave risk of degenerating into technocracy, albeit masquerading as democracy.     

European Ideas: Are questions of tolerance to be raised on a national level, European level, or both?

L. D.: Both, without a shadow of a doubt. One will not work without the other.

European Ideas: In light of the Lautsi v Italy case, concerning religious symbols in school classrooms, how do you see the function of the European Court of Human rights? How effective can the European court system deal with questions of religious tolerance?

L. D.: I believe that it is crucial, since we face a serious risk of mistaking the political abuse for local sensibility and culture. With all due respect to the uniqueness and polyvocality of European cultures, they cannot assume any key role in dealing with modern moral and political sensibilities, especially with violations of civil liberties and human rights. The supranational and the extra-cultural are two dimensions without which we will never be able to speak on behalf of Europe as a unique configuration of the forms of modern moral and political experience.

European Ideas: Concerning rights of homosexuality, legislation has been passed in Lithuania that has received much media controversy and criticism. You are regarded as being one of the leading human rights intellectuals in Europe. How have you dealt with civil liberties and a growing demand for equal rights for homosexuals, not only in Lithuania, but also in Europe, and around the world?

L. D.: I had to act in a decisive and unapologetic manner. My country violated human dignity and human rights; therefore, I had a right and a duty to speak up. Without any hesitation, I co-signed the resolution against the decision of my country’s parliament strongly supporting my fellow liberals from ALDE who immediately reacted to the shameful decision of the Lithuanian parliament to criminalize what was described by them as propaganda of homosexuality. Although the preposterous law on the so-called protection of minors from the detrimental effects of public information was a disgrace, keeping in mind that Lithuania, by joining the EU, had an obligation to decriminalize homosexuality, I had to fight for a long time challenging a propensity of some of politicians and media people to label and cast me as an EU partisan and fighter against my country – which is nonsense that does not deserve critique. This story was quite important for me, as I understood that I have to reject, once and for all, a convenient philosophy of a policy maker who wishes to mainstream human rights as a pivotal aspect of foreign policy only to be able to safely attack the country he or she dislikes, instead of starting from his or her own country. We have to be fair-minded with regard to our own country to have the moral right to criticize others. I would apply here the wisdom of the American sociologist Lewis A. Coser who once noticed that we are likely to be especially critical of the things we love.

European Ideas: What is your prospect for the future of European civil rights in connection with identity, morals, and freedom?

L. D.: Our Identity is not a license to deny the unique validity of other identities or to limit the freedom and self-determination of others; nor is it an excuse for an imposition of our historical-political narrative on the rest of Europe. Morals is common grounds for our moral judgment and also for our grasp of human dignity and self-worth, instead of a tool of pathetic and empty lecturing about values which are values insofar as they coincide with our faith and ideology. Freedom is unthinkable without civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights as a form of our responsibility for humanity and also for the public domain. If we withdraw from the area of our direct responsibility for humanity, the public domain will be taken over by technocrats. And the story will be over. We have to realize that we can lose freedom and democracy at any time if we will start taking it for granted and withdrawing from the realm of critical questioning of ourselves and the world around us. What is behind the idea of human rights is the superiority of human individuality and dignity over anonymous collectivities and decisions that supposedly speak on behalf of public good but, in reality, instrumentalize the human world and treat human beings as a means to build power structure and to increase social and political control beyond our reach and imagination.

European Ideas: The Baltic States have historically gone through multiple political transitions. What is your take on national identity? Has the European project triggered a new moral era for the Baltic States, and what can other European states learn from Lithuania?

L. D.: We live in a post-national world. The nation-state is a fiction from the point of view of our human exchanges and mundane choices – we are not molded anymore by the same press, schoolmasters, priests, and politicians, which was the case by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. There is nothing fatal and irreversible in our identity, as we can have several multiple and communicating identities. The nation-state does not form us anymore in the fashion it used to do it a century ago. Another problem is the legitimacy of some international institutions that try to take over and replace the national ones, especially in view of democratic practices and credentials. Law, human rights protection, elections, parliamentary democracy had long been political properties of the nation-state. That global economy and technology outpaced politics and democratic practice is too obvious to need emphasis. Strangely and paradoxically enough, the nation-state is a fiction when it comes to global communications and economy; yet it is alive and well insofar as we have yet to work out the legitimacy-providing forms of global democracy. Otherwise, we will risk sliding into technocracy which will proudly, albeit falsely, assume the role and the name of democracy. The Baltic States could be a good example of how small countries can have rich history full of European diversity. Lithuania in the seventeenth century was an anticipation of the EU – to compare with centralized and homogenous states (such as France or Spain), Lithuania was a decentralized, tolerant, multi-ethic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural entity which was nothing short of a miracle in an age of painful dilemmas of loyalty and cruel religious wars.

European Ideas: At what levels is the cultural heritage of a nation healthy for a nation-building process? Is there a limit after which it could become counterproductive?

L. D.: As I wrote in one of my books, too much memory may strip us of our powers of association and belonging – sometimes, it may even kill us. As for our cultural heritage, a shared culture is always a critical instrument to build a nation. Yet we shouldn’t overplay this card, as a unified memory politics or a single historical narrative can fail us in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city – the most tragic case would be that of Sarajevo, yet we have to remember this in other cosmopolitan cities of Central Europe, such as Vilnius, where we can never explain and understand such a city without other cultures and peoples that lived there for centuries. For how, for instance, can we deal with Vilnius without in-depth exploration of Polish, Jewish, Belarusian, Russian influences and traces there? We can shed light on others, and others throw light on us – this is the only mode of interpretation of modernity that makes sense. This is why my culture, no matter how precious it is for me, cannot locate all forms of humanity that may be related to my country. Last but not least, democracy benefits from a strict separation of politics and culture. Whereas the marriage of the two was historically productive and politically important (especially after the collapse of empires), now we more benefit from the divorce of politics and culture. As Ernest Gellner would have had it, this marriage is just another term for nationalism, while the divorce allows democracy to work better, especially appreciating diversity and democratic practice.

European Ideas: A final philosophical question from our readers: as a political theorist and politician, do you think that Europe’s future in the 21st century will be postmodern, post-totalitarian, and post-material?

L. D.: It is already postmodern and post-totalitarian. The EU was born so. As for its post-materialist qualifications, we have to wait until the Euro crisis is over and we find far more charming topics to discuss than austerity measures and fiscal solidarity. Seriously speaking, our soft power and enormous human potential allows us room for rethinking a dream and a vision as the new and solid grounds for the new – and presumably post-materialistic – EU which can become something incomparably more than a global superpower or an agent of the new forms of exercise of power. The EU can become a pilot project for the centuries to come in terms of how to abandon the time-honored logic of war, coercion, and fear of, coupled with contempt for, what differs from us.

European Ideas: Mr. Donskis, thank you very much for the interview.

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