Historia magistra vitae

22. May, 2007

Foto: A.Starks

An interview with Marie-Christine Skuncke, an author of several leading studies on political communication and political culture during the Enlightenment, by Marija Golubeva, Providus researcher

As a historian of ideas, do you see the relevance of ideas developed several centuries ago, during the period you have been studying, for the political life in Europe and in your country, Sweden, today?

Yes, I would say that some of the ideas I have been working on, ideas of the Swedish eighteenth century, are still very much relevant for the relations between the citizens and the government today. Those are the ideas concerning the liberty of the press, the idea that citizens should have free and open access to government documents, to the documents of the parliament, of public administration. In Sweden, the principle of open access to such information was established in 1766. In some European countries there is nothing similar to it even today. At least, my impression is that, for example, there is nothing similar to it in France. I do not know about Latvia.

In Latvia, since a year or two, we have rather progressive laws concerning the citizens’ access to government information. But I see a bigger issue behind what you said about the differences between European countries today in terms of the openness and transparency of public administration. I wonder whether the difference between European countries in their attitude towards the values developed during the Enlightenment (not only the free access to government information, but also the relations between the citizens and the government as such) is a real obstacle for Europeans to understand their relationship with the state in similar terms? We have different civic traditions. The relationships between the people of different European countries and their respective governments and political elites are very complex. Do you think these differences are an obstacle for Europeans to understand politics in similar terms?

Yes, I would think it is an obstacle. There are different traditions. In Sweden, for example, we have had the tradition of openness for two hundred and thirty years or so. In France, I have the impression that while politics is something everyone is passionate about, something everyone discusses, one still has no exact idea of what is going on behind the scenes.

If we are speaking of the opportunities that have existed in Sweden for so long and were to a lesser extent present in other countries, then we have to be aware of the new challenges to these opportunities today. I would say the conditions are changing not only in Europe but also across the world, and that is what many people are concerned about. The Internet revolution has changed radically the conditions of the press, of the media. Compared to the eighteenth century, today there are more problems concerning what is concealed, what someone may try to conceal, and what is revealed.

The experience of the eighteenth century is very crucial to the tradition of critical thinking, including critical thinking about one’s own nation, about the government, about the norms of society. It means that these norms can be criticised and changed, if they are not found rational. That is not a concept which is shared in equal extent by all European nations. In Eastern Europe, there is more of what I would call ‘careful’ attitude towards the values of secularism and critical thinking, and liberalism in the wide understanding of the term. We know that the word ‘liberalism’ did not exist in the eighteenth century, but the wide set of ideas underpinning it, including intellectual liberty as primary motivation of the human being, was developed then. Would you agree that the widely divergent perception of these values is increasingly becoming a problem for Europe, not only because of the historic differences between the East and the West, but also because in the West European countries themselves, there are now growing communities which do not share this tradition and where many people are extremely apprehensive of these values?

I think there is a problem. I think we can see this, most obviously, in the discussions about the Constitution of the European Union. Should it, or should it not mention Christian values? I think it would be natural for many countries of Northern Europe, certainly for Sweden, to adopt the secularism line, to wish not to include special clauses on Christian values. There have been surveys concerning the acceptance of secularism in different societies. While one can remain sceptical concerning the ways such inquiries are conducted, the way the questions are posed, it is still interesting that such inquiries point to the fact that Sweden is the most secular country in the world.

Are you referring to the studies by Ronald Inglehart, on value orientations across the world?[1]

Exactly, I am referring to his findings. Based on that, I think that the Swedes – not all Swedes, of course, but most Swedes – would not be happy to see such role for Christianity in the European Constitution. But what about Catholic countries, such as Poland? Even Angela Merkel has expressed support. But as one commentator in a Swedish newspaper said recently – if you include Christian values as a basis for the European Union, then what of the numerous Muslim people living in Europe? That means they cannot fully identify themselves with the EU, be full-fledged citizens of Europe, which seems to be quite dangerous. And it can be used as an argument, for example, for saying ‘no’ to Turkey. In my opinion, the perspective of belonging to the European Union leads Turkey on to implement important reforms, to be more careful about what concerns human rights, and my impression is that this perspective might lead to very positive developments, opposite to just questioning whether they have any reason to belong here.

I share your enthusiasm concerning the possibility of change for Turkey, because for me the possibility of shared human values as a basis for politics, despite cultural differences, is a goal in itself. At the same time, there are people who think that differences between cultures, or civilisations, as they prefer to call them, are good enough reason to stay apart and not to attempt political projects together. As you may have noticed, there is an opinion in Eastern Europe that we should keep our ‘traditional values’, such as they are, and not let ‘Europe’ change them. Values mentioned more frequently include traditional family and a certain perception of Christianity, and the claim is that ‘the West’ is doing some kind of moral violence to Eastern Europe, by ‘importing’ liberal values. What responses to this critique do you find from the perspective of European heritage, which includes also the eighteenth century, and your own heritage?

I would say the key word for me is tolerance. I think it is dangerous to start isolating ourselves, to say ‘we are Western Europe, we have our values’ or ‘we are Eastern Europe, we have our values’. The way forward is certainly to respect each other and try to understand each other. People travel, they pick up new ideas, and hopefully these would be the ideas that help them open their minds. I believe in young people travelling, and also in intermarriage. I am myself a result of marriages between people of different nationalities, a Pole and a Frenchman, and then between a half-French, half-Polish woman and a Swede. Accepting each other’s values is the key. Growing up in Paris with a Swedish Protestant father, that was quite interesting. At first my mother’s family were careful, but then they saw – well, he was also a person, kind and generous, and they accepted him.

You spoke earlier today of a lack of interest in history among young people in Sweden. Studies show that young people in prosperous countries usually are less interested in history than young people in countries in a state of conflict, or latent conflict, where the rhetoric is that ‘they took something from us’. So perhaps it is not bad if young people show little interest in history, it means there is no such conflict in their minds. On the other hand, it also means that there is less understanding of how dearly human liberty is acquired, and how difficult it was to arrive at such principles as the undisputed value of every human being. Do you think something can be done about this apathy of the Europeans concerning their past before the twentieth century?

I think history is seen differently in countries which have not seen war for a long time, like Sweden, and countries that have experienced war more severely and more recently, like Latvia and Poland. When I was in Gdansk, in the 1970s and 80s, I remember there were posters on the walls, saying ‘Liberty, Equality and Truth’. That was a claim for historical truth, because for Poles, there were two histories. There was the history that was taught at school, and then there was the history that was taught by their parents, which was a truer history. In France, there was the Resistence, which is also reflected in historical memory.

Sweden has not experienced real war since the early nineteenth century. The Norwegians are different in that respect, the Danes are different. But the Swedes are lulled in this happy dream – that it has always been like that, since history becomes socialist at the end of the nineteenth century, and since then the Swedish society is the best that can be achieved. And then, why do we need history? My impression is that the apathy concerning history is much worse in a country like Sweden than it could be, for instance, in Latvia, or in Poland.

The question is, what kind of history? There is also a kind of history that gives the impression that everyone is against us, that we are the victims. Take the example of the Serbs, of Serbian history. One can hear that ‘everyone is against us’, that the rest of Europe is against Serbia, and Serbs are the victims. If it is that kind of history, if it is a sort of narrow-minded nationalist history, then we have nothing to regret if we do not have such an approach to history in Sweden. But when the majority of the Swedes know nothing about this law on the freedom of the press, which was already there in the 1760s, when they know nothing about their historical roots, that is really sad.

What is to be done for waking people up from this historical apathy? I think we have to start with school teaching. I’m afraid I cannot give a practical solution, but I would emphasise the respect for the complexity of the past when teaching history, not attempting to twist history in order to restrict people somehow. It is important to give examples from life. I think it was Cicero who called history ‘magistra vitae’ – the teacher of life. It is crucial to give examples, for instance, when speaking of women’s role in history, of minorities in history. To show a picture of a person, to tell the story of a person, to captivate the audience. And hopefully, this might work. If history is just a boring series of charts and dates, it will not come alive.

Marie-Christine Skuncke was interviewed in Riga in April 2007 during the conference European History as Inspiration and Resource for Individuals.

[1] The relative value of Secularism versus Traditionalism in different societies is reflected in the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map of the world: . raksts

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