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Worldwide reading event aims to boost democracy

Sabine Peschel / rbSeptember 7, 2016

Can populism be fought with words? A worldwide literature reading seeks to better understand democracy and its threats with texts by famous authors such as Arundhati Roy, Susan Sontag and Max Weber.

Arundhati Roy Copyright: Joe Corrigan/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images/J. Corrigan

On a global scale, a state election in Germany in which a right-wing party gains more than a fifth of the votes of the state, is insignificant. In a European context, the recent election outcome in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is not surprising considering increasingly resurgent right-wing parties in France, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and other nearby countries.

As populist parties gain ground these days, literary experts and fans are joining together to speak out against them.

On September 7, during a worldwide reading in support of democracy without populism, there will certainly be qualified answers to these questions, with the help of relevant texts from recognized philosophers and writers.

AfD banner at a Pegida demonstration Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert
The right-wing AfD party was successful at the recent state election in Mecklenburg-Western PomeraniaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

The initial question will be posed in a text by the Indian writer Arundhati Roy: "So the question is: What have we done to democracy? What have we turned democracy into? What will happen when democracy has become hollow and meaningless?"

An excerpt from her essay "Democracy's Failing Light" is one of the texts that will be read on this day in Germany, Finland, Lithuania, Croatia, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the USA.

Readings against 'political lies'

The worldwide readings were initiated in 2006 by the Peter Weiss Foundation for Culture and Politics in Berlin on the occasion of the third anniversary of the outbreak of war in Iraq.

Cultural institutions such as literature houses, theaters and interested individuals in various cities have since been called on at irregular intervals - sometimes several times a year - for readings. The International Literature Festival Berlin has taken up these readings and added their own events to their program.

The readings focus on the most relevant political issues, but also about the fate of politically committed personalities. So far, readings have taken place for the murdered Chechen reporter Anna Politkovskaya, for Edward Snowden, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and other persecuted or murdered activists. The last reading in January was held for the Saudi Arabian poet and curator Ashraf Fayadh.

Saudi Arabian poet Ashraf Fajadh Copyright: picture alliance/AP Photo/Ashraf Fayadh/Instagram
Poet Ashraf Fayadh was convicted in Saudi ArabiaImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/Ashraf Fayadh/Instagram

Organizers and the participants are acting against what they call "the political lies," explaining that populism "thrives on binaries" and "despises pluralism." The aim of the events and actions is to raise awareness for forms of political communication.

The foundation's current call is: "Populism is a political position that takes the prevailing feelings, prejudices and fears of the population and adapts and exploits these to define a political agenda that promises quick and easy solutions to all problems. (...) But history has shown that populist feelings can quickly be misused by unscrupulous leaders, whether they belong to the right or left of the spectrum, and can be manipulated for cruel purposes."

Texts 'reduce the distance between thought and expression'

One of the texts to be read, an excerpt from Max Weber's "Politics as a Vocation," explains how important it is for politicians to resist the temptation to follow in the footsteps of demagogues: "There are ultimately only two kinds of mortal sins in the field of politics: lack of objectivity and - often, but not always, identical with - irresponsibility."

An excerpt from Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" from 1986, can also be seen as a warning of the current political development: "It was characteristic of the rise of totalitarian movements in Europe, the fascists and communists, that their members were recruited from the mass of those apparently politically quite uninterested groups, which had been abandoned by all other parties as too stupid or too apathetic."

Writer Susan Sontag Copyright: AP Photo/Michael Probst
Susan Sontag fought for human rights her entire lifeImage: AP

Additional texts by Edward Said (excerpts from the introduction of "Orientalism"), George Orwell (excerpts from "Politics and the English Language" and from "Notes on Nationalism") and E. M. Forster (excerpts from "What I Believe" from 1938) attempt "to reduce the distance between thought and expression" during the worldwide readings.