An Ordinary Radical
1. Can you tell folks a little about your history - how did you come to be politically radical?
Not to put the cart before the horse, but I’d like to say first that I don’t consider myself politically radical. Not at all. I consider myself rather an ordinary – or “normal” – person who tries to see the world from a fact based or scientific point of view and make decisions based on facts and evidence. In other words: I consider myself a realist, as far as that is possible, and if that is radical, then all realism is radical.
I would say that I am a product of my time and the place I grew up in, which is probably true for most people. Born in 1970, I grew up in a small coastal town in Northern Germany before the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany. The region I am from (Lower Saxony) is rather a poorer part of Germany; before the reunification it used to be the region with the highest unemployment rates and lower mean incomes than in the South. I grew up during the 1980s, which saw the rise of the Green party, a party that came (at least partly) out of the anti-nuclear protests in Germany. My parents were politically rather on the left, voting for the Social Democrats (SPD) and often for the Green party. They were also pacifists; not that they actively protested war, but I remember discussions at the dinner table where my father would call political leaders war criminals (even before Bush) and I would learn that he hadn’t talked to my grandparents for a year because of their support for the Vietnam War.
It is also worth keeping in mind that my generation, although almost two generations removed from the war, was still constantly reminded of that particular chapter of German history and our historical responsibilities. We discussed the Second World War, the rise of the Nazis, etc. three times during my high school years; we read books about the Nuremberg trials, discussed Goebbels’s propaganda speeches and just in general the How and Why of the ascend of the Nazis. We were taught that we cannot let history repeat itself ever again. Patriotism also wasn’t a positive concept when I grew up, as we all understood that it can quickly turn into something else. I am actually very grateful for the education I received, especially with respect to what I consider rather a healthy fear of patriotism, even though others describe it as pathological.
Environmentalism, or caring about the environment, including a strong opposition to nuclear power was also something that everybody – or at least everybody I knew – agreed upon, and that was always a topic for discussion, especially after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which really was a take-off point for the Green movement in Germany and the development of a public environmental awareness. Growing up in the 1980s in Germany meant that, by default, you grew up aware of certain environmental problems. It would have been practically impossible to ignore the protests against nuclear plants or nuclear waste transports across the country back then. I was also lucky to have had some good science teachers in school as well who gave us a solid basis in physics, chemistry and biology (evolution!). I remember spending a full term learning about the greenhouse effect and global warming, the thinning of the ozone layer and the impact of CO2 on the climate back in 1988, with predictions for the future that, by now, have been overtaken by reality.
My first contact with political activism came with my engagement in the German Antifa (anti-fascist) movement when I was still a teenager. We had problems with neo-Nazi groups in my hometown, and when one day a group of marauding neo-Nazis came to a place where we were having an Easter bonfire (a tradition in Northern Europe) and forced people to pose for a photo with their hands raised to the Hitler salute and then beat a friend of a friend of mine into the hospital, I’d about had it and joined the Antifa. We tried to disrupt party meetings of the right wing Nazi party DVU and hung up flyers and the like. However, I soon after left my hometown to study chemistry, and I guess through my twenties and early thirties I experienced what a lot of people experience: I was so busy with studying and trying to have a career that would support me that there was little time for anything else. Politically, the 1990s were my “lost decade” when it comes to activism; however, during that time I discovered Latin American authors such as Eduardo Galeano through friends and – of course – started reading Noam Chomsky. I also studied for a year in Japan, just after the economic bubble burst, which apart from the cultural experience was also an eye opener on economic issues.
In 2002, I moved to Spain for work, and started really getting back into politics again, not the least because I met my now husband, who is a linguist working on (wait for it) Chomsky’s theory. Two Chomsky fans... imagine the book shelves. I finally found some stability here in France, and as soon as that happened, I absolutely had to become more involved personally with activism again. I started writing on environmental issues and generally tried to engage in the nuclear energy debate (or rather, the non-existent debate) in France.
I became active with Amnesty International and more involved in human rights issues, in particular the Palestinian cause, which still is a very touchy issue especially when you are German. Last year, I had the unique opportunity to visit the Gaza strip for a conference in linguistics with my husband and some linguist friends, and not only that, but we managed to invite Chomsky to come with us. The trip to Gaza took place in October, only days before the so-called “Operation Pillar of Defence”, and was of course much more of a political than a scientific event, and I have been involved in supporting the Palestinian cause and speaking out publicly ever since.
But to sum up and to repeat: I do not consider myself to be politically radical. I don’t think that there is anything radical in wanting peace and human rights for everyone. There is nothing radical in wishing that our children have a future on a liveable planet. What’s radical is to close your eyes to every fact or evidence that is being thrown your way. What’s radical is to believe that you or your children can live on a radically changed planet, defying the laws of physics, in particular when you’ve had an education that allows you to understand these laws. To me, it requires a conscious effort to willingly ignore every available indicator, be it economical or environmental, that is pointing the wrong direction.
2. You are currently a member of the International Organization for a Participatory Society. Why did you join? What are your hopes for the organization?
As a regular reader of ZNet, I was aware of the effort of building a new organization and was also one of the people who answered the poll regarding the structure, goals and long-term vision such a revolutionary organization should have. Right from the start I liked the values and commitments that IOPS promotes, and in particular I liked the commitment to diversity and internationalism. I believe that the problems we face in our time are global, and so the answer must be, too.
With IOPS, we have a unique opportunity to create a truly international, global movement from the bottom up, instead of expanding an existing movement outwards. I have always believed that the left is too divided, everybody in their own corner, working on their own issues. That is not to say that I don’t think local movements are not important, on the contrary. And a lot of national organizations do exceptional work. But that said, I am still missing a lot of times a truly global vision, and thankfully IOPS has that. I also believe that we can learn a lot from each other, and that real understanding only comes from direct contact with other views, languages and cultures. And IOPS is set up in a way that allows you to contact directly activists from all over the world, get their views, learn from their experiences or actions, and for example later on start concrete projects together.
I also particularly appreciate that IOPS is not focused on one issue, i.e. is not an Environmental organization or a Human Rights organization, but that it has a broad vision that includes all spheres of life, economical, ecological, political and social. So we are flexible when it comes to developing actual projects or activist programs and can throw our “weight” wherever needed.
And lastly, I think that IOPS is an exercise in bottom-up democracy with the way it is set up, and that is something I really appreciate. Even if it can be sometimes challenging, having long discussions that lead nowhere, or feeling misunderstood, or getting into heated arguments. I see all this as a challenge and a real-life experiment for the society that we want to build. I have been (and am still) a member of other international organizations, and even though I completely support their causes, I was often quite appalled by the top-down hierarchical management approach.
My hope is, of course, that IOPS will grow, that people will see how inclusive it is, and that we have a real chance at building something that connects us over cultures and borders. I also hope that more people who are already active, who are for example environmental activists, or members of occupy, or women’s rights activists, or anti-globalisation activists, or what have you, that these people see IOPS and think: Well, I can still continue to work for my cause and my organization, but I’ll also become a member of IOPS, because we need to combine our efforts and I want to bring my experience and my activism to a more global effort in changing society.
3. What are the obstacles, do you think, to such hopes being fulfilled? Internal and external...
I think that IOPS is currently in an interim state, and this is always a very vulnerable place to be in. The internal problems for now, I think, outweigh the external ones. We are still trying to find our voice, members have joined because they liked the vision and the commitments, but we don’t have a concrete action program yet. I think many of the members are just waiting to see where we are going. I am certain that as soon as there is an actual call for action people will mobilize and get excited and be there. I also think that, even though we have stated over and over again that IOPS is not even founded yet and that we are at an interim stage, a lot of the members are already thinking of the next step, it may not even be an issue for them. But in reality we are currently working towards a founding convention for the actual launch of the organization, and that is a big pre-requisite for an actual program. For right now, I think what we need is a critical mass of people who are dedicated to seeing IOPS be officially launched and then just get right in and start our first action program. IOPS is open and flexible, I am quite sure that people will join into the discussion as soon as something is being proposed.
So, lack of patience is a problem, particularly when so many of us have the feeling that the one thing we don’t have any more is time (me included). Communication is another, but again, this is to be expected when you want to create a truly open society in which everyone’s opinion needs to be heard. To me, this also includes communication in other languages than English, something I am working towards. If we want to be truly international, we have to appeal to people from all kinds of backgrounds, countries and cultures. Right now, when you go to the IOPS start page, we look too much like a US/Britain maybe European endeavour. I’d like to see much more content from, say, the Latin American chapters, or Spain, where I think a lot of things are going on and from whom we could learn a lot. Of course, over time and with more chapters built all over the world, more content and programs will come from other non-English speaking chapters, and this will attract more people from these countries, it’s a natural process. But I think we should pay attention to how we present IOPS.
External problems to me right now are less important. Maybe the fact that we have very little recognition within the left media and virtually no visibility. But again, I think that this will change as soon as we can point to an actual program or even a founding convention. We won’t be taken seriously, not even by the left, as long as we are insisting that we are in an interim stage. No doubt, once we actually get some visibility, external obstacles will arise. I’m looking forward to it.
4. You are living in France, and are a biologist, I believe. Do you think your scientific pursuits have any implications for your political pursuits, or vice versa? What might those implications be?
I live in Nantes, which is the fifth largest city in France, located just south of the Breton Peninsula in Western France. I am a biochemist and currently working in a lab that is doing research in the field of bone diseases, in particular rare bone cancers. I’ve been a scientist for about 15 years now, and I’ve spent more than half of my life in a lab, pursuing different research projects. Obviously, and this is true for any career, being this long in one particular field shapes you as a person. Being a scientist in particular shapes the way you think, the way you write, and the way you approach a problem. It also shapes your interest, or maybe my interest for science has shaped my choice of career, but in any case, whenever politics and science cross in public debate, I try to pay attention. So in my political pursuits, I am naturally drawn to any topic that is scientific in nature, such as the nuclear energy question, genetically modified foods, and most of all, climate change (which basically also includes all of the above) which I believe is the defining problem of our time.
I also think that being a scientist makes it easier to form an opinion on other scientific topics, even if outside my field of expertise, and to distinguish between actual facts or evidence and mere speculation, or worse – disinformation and propaganda – just because I have a personal insight into how the scientific community works, and what it means when the scientific community has come to a consensus, as for example in the question of climate change. Even though I may not be an expert in a given field, I understand the process, the time and work that have led to a certain scientific understanding. I have actually written about the scientific process, the way scientific theories are generated and also the rising distrust in science and the propaganda methods that are used to distract and misinform the public (in particular in the US) in the climate debate on my IOPS blog here and here.
I find it extremely upsetting when companies or whole global industries and their lobby groups as well as politicians use disinformation and propaganda methods to influence or bend the public opinion for their own personal gain, with a complete disregard for the consequences – often not only to others but to themselves also. First of all, I think that there is still enough room for lively debate and honest discussion of consequences or action plans to be implemented (I am thinking of climate change here, but I am sure this is true for other topics as well) even after we have all agreed on the basic facts. Understanding a problem is only the first step to finding a solution. But contrary to social issues or the understanding of human nature and interactions, scientific problems are really usually very straightforward, and propaganda is a distraction from the real issues at hand that we urgently need to address.
What disturbs me even more than scientific propaganda is the increasing under-education, in particular in the sciences, of children and most of all the increasing mixing of science and religion. A Senator Inhofe who publicly declares the “total collapse of the global warming movement” and calls it arrogance to think that humans may influence “what God is doing” leaves me speechless. Not to mention all the other anti-scientists who hold public office in the US. Europeans often believe that this is primarily an American (US) problem, and so far I don’t think that a Senator Inhofe would be electable to any public office in Europe, but we should be very careful. The debate on creationism in the biology class has already reached Europe, as shown by the case of a German minister (Karin Wolff) who wanted to introduce biblical creation as a “second view point” into biology class. In that respect, I think that scientists have a responsibility to speak out and to not repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past. Scientists have reacted way too late in speaking out publicly on certain issues.
Unfortunately, I know only too many who are absolutely apolitical. Many scientists I know are totally immersed in their own research, involved in lively discussions in their own field and ready to fight when someone questions their own findings, but utterly silent when it comes to explaining the public implications of their work (and often there are public implications, just think of drug design or drug testing within the pharmaceutical industry). People may also say, it is not the place of the scientist to talk about implications or influence policy making, and that may be true, but we need to make a better job in making our own research more accessible to the public. And finally, scientists are obviously not immune to propaganda themselves, although usually not in their own field of expertise, but still. Or else I really cannot explain why there are so many myths surrounding the question of nuclear energy, and a lack of understanding of even the most basic facts on radioactivity, even among my colleagues in the lab.
So, to sum up: yes, I believe that my scientific pursuits are very closely linked to my political interests, and being a scientist has shaped my way of thinking and formed my opinion on (and interest in) several political issues that are based in science. I believe that scientists have a responsibility to educate and to speak out on issues that they understand and to separate propaganda and disinformation from actual facts (and to shut up on issues that they don’t understand, although that may be more difficult.)
5. In the unfolding crises that have been afflicting Europe, France has seemed rather different, from a distance, than, say, Greece and Spain. What do you think the differences are, and what do you think explains them?
Although I have been living in France for half a decade now, I have to admit that I know precious little about French day to day politics. I am so busy following what’s going on in the US, Germany (my native country) and Spain (where I lived before), that I often just shut down when the next French minister gets caught in some tax fraud scandal or the like. So I am really no expert when it comes to French politics. But yes, I agree that France has been utterly silent these past couple of years. For one, I think that after the elections last year, which the Socialist party (with Hollande as president) won for the first time since 1995, there is a feeling among the left that things can’t possibly be that bad. The crisis hasn’t hit France as bad as it has hit Greece, or Spain, or even Italy. What’s more, France is one of the major players in Europe, together with Germany. It is often said that, without the France-Germany axis, there is no Europe. Economically, France has a better standing than Spain, for example, which was so dependent on the real estate sector. But most importantly, the rules that apply to other (poorer) European countries, do not apply to France. France is not going to hit the 3% deficit target this year, just like the years before, but there will be no consequences, while other countries are being punished when targets aren’t met, just look at Cyprus right now.
However, I think things are changing here as well. Hollande had run is election campaign as the anti-austerity party, but in fact if you look at his politics and what he has done since he came into office, this is far from reality, and people are starting to notice. Hollande has painstakingly avoided calling the implementation of new tax laws or the cutting of social benefits etc. “austerity measures” but really, what else are they? The reason why there has been no public outcry (yet) is that, sadly, until now the crisis hasn’t been visible (or painful) enough, I guess. However, Hollande’s approval rate has now sunk to 24%, which is the lowest that any president has ever had in the 5th Republic, unemployment is rising steadily and is now the highest since the 1980s. The government is shook by financial scandals and for the first time in decades the purchasing power has gone down. Hollande’s power is weakening and he is being confronted with massive demonstrations.
However, the biggest demonstration recently has been against gay marriage or marriage equality (marriage pour tous), an utterly ridiculous spectacle and public display of homophobia. To me, this was a symbol of the myth that the French are traditionally left. I once read somewhere that this myth was invented by the Parisian Bohème and was really only spread by the media until it became a globally accepted cliché. I can easily believe that. In reality, France is very much still an elitist country, where basically the entire political class is recruited from a handful of elite schools, and where the social class you come from is decisive for your career. I can see that every day at my work place. It is also an extremely hierarchical and still very sexist society, despite the fact that for example many more women work than, say, in Germany. To me, “liberté, égalite, fraternité” is really just a slogan at this point, the France of the majority is the France of the catholic schools, the elite universities, the bourgeoisie and the conservative voting country side.
6. What do you think are the prospects for activism and radical resurgence in France, which, after all, has a substantial radical history?
After the France-bashing in the last paragraph, I need to make clear that I don’t think everyone is bourgeois or elitist here. On the contrary, there is a very active left in this country, but unfortunately, this is probably not the majority. One of the best leftist newspapers in the world, the Monde Diplomatique, is French after all. There are excellent radio programs as well and other independent media, but as always it is difficult to get through to the main stream. What’s missing is a public debate on left issues. One of the most depressing experiences for me has been the total lack of public debate on nuclear energy, on which the French economy depends greatly, after Fukushima. Equally disturbing was the total lack of discussion before the French invasion of Mali, and the silence of the main stream media afterwards.
However, there is hope since there is more and more outrage from the left fringe of the socialist party, the communists and others, because they are extremely disappointed with Hollande. Given the right circumstances, more public awareness and more pressure from the left, people will hit the streets again for sure, and hopefully next time for the right reasons.