Youth, Devil and the Radical Mediocrity

Concrete

Youth is facing the income gap, the inequality gap, the opportunity gap, the health gap, and the access to education gap. It is a difficult time! There is also the justice gap. There are now major international banks publicly admitting that they were dealing money for drug cartels, but nobody goes to prison. A young men from a poor neighbourhood that is not very far from Wall Street or the London city is often imprisoned immediately for a minor crime, like possession of one or two cigarettes of marijuana. It becomes clear that if you can afford to pay fines like that of $1.9 billion paid by HSBC you can engage freely in money-laundering for some of the most ruthless criminal gangs in the drug world. The reality is – beyond the rhetoric and demagogy – that too many times rich can get away with anything!

The recent (and endlessly appalling) scandal of FIFA reveals much more than a simple story about an international federation of sport. A recent article went as far as saying that this is an unfolding narrative that explains the arrangements in the current world. It is clear that this FIFA-saga proves that one can engage in outrageous corrupt practices for decades even if this is ruining some of the most popular sports in the world, if dirty money oil the wheels of the system. One can rule with astounding impunity, with a style that could inspire even some of the most evil and experienced dictators, and no European justice system will ever bother you. Hope for European youth just got another hit.

It is relevant to remind here that FIFA is remunerating – officially! – its staff 34% more than hedge funds and 25% more than banks award their traders. Imagine now that you have a graduate diploma in your hands, but no house, no job (not even the prospect for a decent job) and hear the news about tens of millions of dollars in bribes and implausible arrogance and luxury going on for a lifetime… This is the situation for millions of graduates. It cannot ever feel right. Outrage is just a natural reaction to this. Youth is in crisis, the system is in crisis and the world is shaking behind ‘potemkin village’ screens. It may be safe at this point to remember that the rise of evil was was completely underestimated back in 1920’s.

Youth is in crisis, the system is in crisis and the world is shaking behind ‘potemkin village’ screens. It may be safe at this point to remember that the rise of evil was completely underestimated back in 1920’s.

Youth Marginalization and the Rise of Risks

While institutions like FIFA, many international banks and corporations are engulfed in scandals about grotesque corruption, some European countries are confronted with youth unemployment that is higher than even in a failed state like Libya. The startling reality is that youth in Greece, Spain or Croatia have now smaller chances to get a job than those who are living in some countries that are devastated by war.

This is just part of a general bleak picture. In countries where the situation was not as critical, unemployment recently climbed to new records. In France, unemployment reached new highs in April this year. The International Labour Organisation is warning that ‘the world is facing a worsening youth employment crisis’ and the situation is not improving in the European Union. 

Australia, a country able to avoid the effects of the global financial crisis, currently registers a steep increase in youth unemployment. In a report released by the Treasurer J. B. Hockey, we find that “the rate of youth unemployment sits at 14.2 per cent as of January 2015”. This is a two-decade high. It is also known that Australian graduates have in the last years a very difficult time.

In the United States, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recently published a report documenting that long-term and high rates of youth unemployment (18- to 34 year-olds) costs up to $25 billion a year in uncollected taxes and increased safety net expenditure. The lost potential and long-term effects can be imagined. 

This makes some few sober and realistic politicians wonder if this crisis is not already too dangerous. In 2013, the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was worried that youth unemployment could lead Europe to severe social unrest, talking about a possible revolution. Currently, over 5 million young Europeans – one in four of those eligible to work – are currently looking for a job. In the last months of 2014, French President François Hollande said in a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Italian Premier Matteo Renzi that “This is the major challenge for Europe. If we are not capable or offering hope to the next generation, people will turn their backs on Europe. We see the risk, we see the threat.

The threat is much more serious than this and events after that conference proved it in a dramatic and horrifying succession of events.

Old Devil, New Faces

The threat is not only to turn their backs to Europe, but to turn their face to what can channel their frustrations or bring a sense of belonging, even if this is against all human values. In Europe and other parts of the world, many already turned their faces to a sinister shadow of recent history: extreme political movements, right and left. When disillusioned youth contemplates their lack of perspective, cynicism and corruption of many current leaders, some well-versed demagogues are able to use this sense of desperation and disillusionment for their own purposes. It often looks like a reconstruction of the horrible trail of what Tismaneanu calls the Devil in History.

The new fascisms are much more potent than only open the painful wounds of the past. Especially in Europe, a continent almost completely destroyed by the twisted ideologies of the extreme left and extreme right in the last century, it is unthinkable to hear that crowds in France yelled “Death to Jews” after ShoahThe new century finds innocent people killed for going to a Jewish museum or a kosher supermarket and synagogues are attacked across Europe. Lessons of the twentieth century are long forgotten at the grassroots level, where the youth lives today. This is also happening because political leaders, academia and in general  intelligentsia indulged for decades in a parallel existence where corruption looks less like a withering practice for economy and social fabric, but more as a sign of real stamina in people able to succeed. Increasing warning signs were covered for a long time with a rhetoric of demagogical promises, echo chambers and a constant effort to silence whistleblowers.

The reality is as bad as we can imagine when we see that reputed newspapers have headlines such as Antisemitism on rise across Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis’. It is time to admit that something went very wrong if we are at the point where the horror of what Nazis represent for Europe and humanity mean so little that we really contemplate a replay of their times.

Youth is often part of these movements and there are many fast to blame again the new generation. But the so-called “entitlement” of a generation labeled as ‘X’, ‘millennials’, ‘Me generation’ or ‘the lost generation’ is part a simplistic stereotype and a convenient jeremiad chanted at the boys’ club on same nostalgic lines about some imagined good old times. It may be the entitlement for some, and also a real clash between the high expectations cultivated for youth. This was promoted with irresponsible cynicism for comfort, votes, and other vain interests. These high expectations now collide with the very grim reality of unemployment and underemployment, NEETs and inequality, lack of a coherent present and perspectives for a better future. The gap is too big! 

Effects of this complex reality are erupting now in various ways: some genuine forms of protests and indignation or cohorts lured by extremists and fascists. These parties are interested to channel exasperation into rage and hate, to grow the membership of their movements. This explains why the danger of fascism, anti-democratic and extremist movements is not requiring now any astute analysis or inspired predictions, but a simple reading of political polls are election results. The rise of neo-fascist and extreme left political parties in Europe cannot be ignored anymore. Openly neo-Nazi parties sit now in Brussels in the European Parliament, next to the far-left parties, equally dangerous for stability and the future, as Greece will show soon. The extreme left and the extreme right have now a type collaboration that is just fueling the risk, as a group of madmen are playing with fire. When Syriza, the Greek far-left party, was aiming to win Greece’s parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme-right party, 

When Syriza, the Greek far-left party, was aiming to win Greece’s parliamentary elections, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French extreme-right party, publicly announced support for the extremists on the left. Not that Neo-Nazis were not popular in Greece. The Golden Dawn was expected to come third in the Greek parliamentary elections – but this was not on the agenda for their sister-movement in France. The National Front in France, the PEGIDA in Germany, Jobbik in Hungary (…and to have a glimpse at how these parties understand society we can remind that Jobbik’s deputy parliamentary leader Márton Gyöngyösi said in a public address that “…it is timely to tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary”), Holocaust denialists in the Romanian government, the neo-nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, Geert Wilders’ ‘Party for Freedom’, the Austrian Freedom Party or Britain’s Ukip… are just part of a long and truly scary list of extreme right movements taking centre stage in elections, local and central parliaments. 

Moving from a repugnant eccentricity, extreme-right recently announced forming a new political bloc in the European Parliament to gain more power and influence. How is this even possible? Of course, a long time of ‘guilty innocence’ of European elites, of denial and corruption is to blame. But the current context is also important. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is strengthening his version of a fascist state with a bellicose political strategy based on military aggression and intimidation of Europe and its allies (the Russian invasion the Republic of Georgia in 2008 was just an opening move for what is happening now in Ukraine). The Newsweek and many other political outlets and analysts (see here and here other examples) document the fact that Putin’s Russia Is in the Grip of Fascism

The flames of extreme nationalism and intolerance can get out of control (as it always happened in the past). It is also important to realize that Putin’s regime is actively engaged in a “state-sponsored subversion of European democratic systems“. This translates into a constant investment in extremist parties across Europe and their propaganda machines. Uncovering the source of generous funding for the abominable political fringe explains just in part the current disturbing puzzle of the European political landscape, or why the extremists parties were on the rise. It is time to admit that the danger is real. The fascist temptation is a very dangerous game for Russia, for Europe and for the world.

The Reality Gap

It is interesting to see how far the economic, cultural or political elites are from the realities of common citizens. We can think about the surprising remarks of US President Obama, who underlined in his address to the United Nations General Assembly that “this is the best time in human history to be born”. It cannot be comforting for millions of people displaced by all wars across the globe, reaching record numbers after WWII, or for people experiencing the horrors of ISIS and Islamofascism. It is also hardly possible to say that it is the best time to be born when inequality is constantly rising for the last 30 years in all countries, reaching in some cases ‘historical highs‘ (according to OECD studies). It is hardly possible to be cheerful when you find that “Across the world the 80 richest people have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. In Australia, the richest 1% are as rich as the poorest 60% of Australians.

Especially in the United States may be a difficult time to be born if we consider that the pace of growing inequality is reaching levels seen only before the 1928 Depression. There were ‘45.3 million people living at or below the poverty line in 2013′ there are many new mothers that may find hard to adopt this extreme optimism. Especially when we consider that studies show that being poor is affecting the human brain starting from kindergarten.

There are many ways to explore how the current disconnect between elites and the living reality developed to the current magnitude. It is difficult to find reasons for the current cynicism displayed by most who have the power to change. But a simple event may help. For example, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, was recently invited to talk about his latest book, ‘The Road to Character’ in a recent TV show on Australian television. The interviewer is well known for his astute observations and line of questioning. In this particular instance he was at one point inquiring about the past where some values were strong – according to him – even though it was much worse, as the world after the war  had “racism and antisemitism”. Of course, the interviewer was implying that we live better times. These problems of the past are long gone and we still find our way to balance and strong character. This is more than just amazingly naive and irresponsible. It is speaking about a certain space where the world really looks different. The real news for the ‘old boys club’ is that it is truly terrible to be poor, it is not safe at all to be part of a religious or ethnic minority in almost every country around the world and so on.

A recent New York Times article presents the terrifying reality in the heart Europe:

<< …last year, according to the French Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews. The statistics in other countries, including Great Britain, are similarly dismal. In 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish. Sale Juif—“dirty Jew”—rang in the streets, as did “Death to the Jews,” and “Jews to the gas.” >>

It is not the best time to be born a Gypsy in Europe as it is not an easy time to be born an African American in the United States. The Confederate flag still flies high in the US and survivors are still in shock in the aftermath of the racial terrorist attack in Charleston. Indigenous people in Australia still have a very hard time and First Nations in Canada or Latin America have some of the most difficult tests of their existence, as their cultural marginalisation is doubled by that their environment is poisoned or completely destroyed. Despite progress – even in the most advanced societies and economies – we still find a gender pay gap and systemic discrimination against women. There is no doubt that people in various positions of power can high-five in meetings and congratulate each other in front of various banners announcing ‘mission accomplished’, but this kind of refuge from reality is always coming with a very high price!

The Road to Radical Mediocrity in Education

Vulnerable youth and disenfranchised voters are lured too often by half-truths and demagogical propaganda of extremist movements across the world and it is not Kremlin behind all these movements. It just happens that in Europe they found a weak point in line with the political beliefs at home. We can now see that Islamofascism is growing along with islamophobia. Extremes – Right, Left, religious or religiously against religion – are always despicable and dangerous. In the United States, the growing threat is well summarized in a recent article published by the New York Times: “…headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police.

It may be the right time to get less hysterical about what mass media feeds us and use our collective brains to see if the right-wing extremists are not among us, if our societies are still compassionate and inclusive. We still hold our values or play and twist them when convenient to create new repressive rules. How many universities do you know talking publicly about this topic?

Of course, the only efficient way to fight manipulation and being mislead by sleek PR, headlines and propaganda is education. Education alone can separate what is decent and useful from manipulation and all the loathsome nonsense that is used to fuel hate and violence in the name of race, religion, gender, national or sexual identities. Educated minds have a common characteristic across ages and generations: a healthy curiosity.

This feature translates into an irresistible urge to place a foundational question mark next to all that seems to matter. It is a feature of those questioning dogmas and accepted truths, exploring different perspectives, challenging favored or adored ideas just because they seem wrong or can be improved, abandoning the comfort of convenient and familiar spaces to explore the unknown and find more. This is not only what is behind the progress of humanity, but it is what preserves our humanity.

An educated mind is what is changing the path from a herd life, a regimented existence that is apparently convenient, just because it limits the horizon. It is much easier to stir the fear and hostility to all that is unknown and unfamiliar in someone living with prepackaged answers, but this existence is always vulnerable to manipulation and servitude. Again, education is the main solution to cultivate human values, freedom, and a decent life. This is why education is not only a privilege for those who teach – who should, and used to be, respected for doing this difficult task – but a tremendous responsibility. 

The problem is that education is not in a very good state. Among a long list of vital problems, there is a very serious global teacher shortage. The chronic lack of trained teachers leads to a continuous drop of standards, even if they were in many countries already abysmally low. Data recently released by UNESCO shows that ’27 million teachers will be needed to achieve universal primary education by 2030′. Teachers are valued in very few countries. In general, we find them treated well in political discourses and despised in practice, as people with not-so-serious jobs. There are already too many teachers that not truly qualified to teach in any classroom. Against the myth, current arrangements do not make this the most attractive career and this is quite a difficult job if done right.

Along with the belligerent anti-science crowd attacking it, education is pushed by various forces to radical mediocrity, to a fundamentalist average.

Traditionally, universities have the responsibility to protect society, human values and civilization. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions we find education deeply muddled into a succession of fads and shallow approaches. Some blame academics for this, but this is just a simplistic and not entirely accurate accusation. It is also no solution there! The first reason of the ‘adoration for the average’ can be found in a new model of governance embraced by higher education across the world.

The New Public Management radically changed universities across the world, being quasi-adopted in higher education governance across the world, with very few exceptions. Despite the ubiquitous promise, the New Public Management, with the glorification of market-based solutionism, failed to improve public service performance. There are various studies that document this fact and we can leave this aside here. It is important to observe that higher education makes no exception. This change is not marked by an increase of ‘efficiency’, quality, depth, motivation of staff and students etc.

In 2012, the sociologist Roger Burrows published an article about the contemporary academia, under governance models inspired by NPM:

“…something has changed in the [British] academy. Many academics are exhausted, stressed, overloaded, suffering from insomnia, feeling anxious, hurt, guilt, and ‘out-of-placeness’. One can observe it all around: a deep, affective, somatic crisis threatens to overwhelm us […] We know this; yet somehow we feel unable to reassert ourselves […] In our brave new world, it seems that a single final criterion of value is recognized: a quantitative, economic criterion. All else is no more than a means. And there is a single method for ensuring that this criterion is satisfied: quantified control”.

One of the most important changes of the last decades is that the new model of governance completely eliminates Trust and professional independence from universities. According to NPM, academic staff must be controlled and monitored regularly, quantifiable indicators must be achieved, tenure should be weakened or eliminated and staff downsized. This self-defeating combination was naturally associated with a profound cultural change. The main features of this new culture are determined by fear and distrust.

Of course, there are some universities doing better than others, but the systemic problem erodes the foundation of the entire system. Statistics on stress, depression and motivation in academia reveal that something is seriously wrong in some of the most well-ranked systems of higher education (adopting the preferred judgement criteria now).

We can admit that we do not have now – when we really need it – the most conducive environment to stimulate the courage required to think beyond the norms, to challenge ideas and expose fraud, pseudo-knowledge, to critique and explore, to imagine new solutions and advance knowledge. This is a time when all this is needed, because we face the awakening of some of the most horrifying ghosts of the past.

The Mediocre Campus

Recently media acknowledged in different countries what is a known unknown for at least a decade in education at all levels: many educators avoid difficult topics of debate rather than responsibly helping students to explore them. Obtuse policies are ‘shutting down debate‘ on extremism, from Shakespeare to Oedipus or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, students require ‘trigger warnings’, so that they can withdraw in time from studying them to avoid the trauma of intense and unwanted emotions. In the US, the American Association of University Professors released the report ‘On Trigger Warnings“. Commencement speakers are banned from campuses as an insidious culture of fear, vulnerability, and ultimately intolerance, infiltrates academic life at all levels.

The groupthink strain to embrace mediocrity makes intelligent debates dangerous for one’s future and alternative views are unwanted. To deal with basic difference became so evidently difficult in campuses that comedians such as Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld refuse to set foot in campuses. This should terrify academics! A place where laughing is censored is not only boring… is scary as a fundamentalist stronghold!

This is why we find that a self-proclaimed intelligent crowd finds the ‘middle ground’ when journalists are slaughtered because they dare to ridicule. The argument seems to make sense, but it does not: ‘I am all for freedom of speech and all – they say – but this is too much: ridiculing that?!?” The evident fallacy is that freedom is not  working in halfs and pauses. This is also the problem with mediocrity: it blinds the minds so much that makes impossible to see how absurd is to say that anyone can be killed for drawing a cartoon. How inhuman is that. How low the person admitting that falls. This is when the ghosts of the past start to win ground fast, just before our own eyes.

The Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco is a play about the rise of fascism in Europe. Berenger – an indifferent and seemingly alienated character – is changed entirely by his last line, that ends the play: “I’m not capitulating!”

We have the responsibility to remind our students and fellow citizens not only how important is our freedom, how important our values are, but how fragile is democracy. We have to defend it and fight for it because… we have the knowledge and the brain to explain why we must defent it! Academics and students cannot and will not capitulate!

6 comments
  1. Thank you for bringing all this together into what is a scary picture but one that behoves us all to note and do what we can to change in our own lives

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  2. dirare abdesselem said:

    Thank you very much Mr Stefan ,your deep analysis in very clear an academic one making us hearding what we had not the chance to heard , esprcialy what powers of evil don’t want us to heard. It’s the noble mission of all intellectual who believe that he has a noble mission infront of all others…Obliterating facts is a crime…and I’m not at the level to make value-judgement. Thank you again …Chomsky,George Galloy,Zigler and many others honests can be happy…

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  3. Interesting article except what you call the radical right is more accurately put to the far left. The far left of the political spectrum is accurately called totalitarianism, the far right, anarchy. Other than that an OK article. Our schools (government) are pretty strictly socialistic propaganda but little different in reality from facist. total agitprop, and one of the many reasons that private and homeschooling is prospering…people don’t like this radical mediocrity (a term I will start using), I’ve also used a maelstrom of mediocrity.

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  4. This deep analysis is characteristic to the educated and intelligent people that may see too much negativity around them. North America or diplomats from Western Europe would fire you for such comments,full of truth,cynical and sarcastic. To survive, keep your thoughts quiet,stay politically correct and smile. Otherwise, you get what I got:backstabbing,job taken by the wife of your colleague or superior,expatriation from a province to another, negative comments on “rate my professor”.Have you wondered why general education classes have so many girls with low back fashion pants in courses taught by male instructors? If what you teach is not fancy and cool like the free TV advertisements, you won’t teach the course again! Very few need sciences, so many need emotional intelligence skills. Very few apply logic, too many are gifted in management or administration.Those who like logic and have rich parents will be appreciated as they didn’t waste the money,but will protect and support their narrow class.And thanks to them,we survive.

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