The Hysterical Style in Western Politics

If one thing distinguishes present politics, it is the hysterical style. By this I mean the unceasing deployment of falsely urgent affective appeals by the press and politicians to manipulate the public attitude and mobilise support for specific programmes.

All major events according to the hysterical style unfold in much the same way: Very suddenly, it is brought to your attention that a Very Bad Thing is happening, which is somehow also Your Responsibility, and for which there is A Solution – if only we could muster the necessary Will and Determination and Faith in Democracy. Generally there can only be one such hysterical narrative at a time; for weeks or months or even years it must be at the centre of every important discussion. Above all you are called upon to feel a specific way about this Very Bad Thing and to demonstrate your feeling with some specific performative action, whether that is attending a protest or wearing a mask. Sooner or later – and whether or not anything has been accomplished against this Very Bad Thing – the hysteria subsides, making way for the next Very Bad Thing. In the hysterical style, politics are never normal; we are always on the verge of some grave catastrophe, always being called upon to emote in new ways and demonstrate this emoting in new political rituals. It is an exhausting way to live. Last Rights: The Death... Bovard, James Buy New $19.99 (as of 03:32 UTC - Details)

Media hysteria is as old as the printing press, but never before has the hysterical style so dominated Western politics. In Germany, I would trace the present era of hyper-hystericisation to the migrant crisis of 2015. The prior year had seen an upsurge in migration to Germany, and in response the rise of the populist anti-Islam movement known as Pegida. In her New Years speech on 31 December, Angela Merkel demanded more “openness to refugees,” who she said would be “a gain for all of us.” In 2015 migration rose still further, and on the last day of August Merkel again addressed the German people, demanding that Europe “share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum” because of something called “universal civil rights,” which would destroyed if Germany turned back the influx. It was her famous wir-schaffen-das speech.

Forty-eight hours later, as opposition to Merkel’s open-borders paean was building, the body of a drowned two year-old Syrian Kurdish boy named Alan Shenu washed up on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey. A local photographer snapped staged photographs of the body; these images were all the media would talk about for days.

People will soon be dying here every day as they flee to Europe,” Rüdiger Schaper wrote in a typical report for Tagesspiegel on 3 September. The photo “shakes the world,” he wrote; it is “unbearable, indelible.”

So many things flash through your mind, questions against your better judgement. You want to jump in, pick up the little one, shake him awake, look after him – that’s the immediate human impulse. There is also this image: the boy is no longer lying on the beach. A policeman is holding him in his arms. You know what you already knew. The boy is no longer alive.

Schäper hoped that the image would move “even those people who can’t bring themselves to look at it.”

That’s why these images must not be suppressed. Because there is hope that they will change something in countries that show little or no willingness to take in refugees. Because it is possible that politicians will reconsider their stance and the willingness to help will increase. Because images can be a weapon in a world dominated by images.

5-Minute Core Exercise... Dzenitis, Tami Brehse Best Price: $6.32 Buy New $8.69 (as of 08:14 UTC - Details) Buried even in these earliest reports were all the crucial if inconvenient details: Shenu’s family had already fled the Syrian civil war to Turkey, where his father Abdullah had employment. Turkey, however, was not good enough; their aim was to join relatives in Canada. It is unclear whether they ever applied for Canadian asylum and in any case Turkey denied them an exit visa. Thus his father paid smugglers to bring his family on a raft to the Greek island of Kos. What happened next is unclear, because of Abdullah’s contradictory statements: He allegedly told the Turkey’s Dogan News Agency that, after two failed smuggling attempts, he set out on his own boat which sank 500 metres offshore; “we had no life vests,” he said. To Western media, he claimed that it was the smugglers’ boat that sank, and indeed they had life vests, “but they were all fake, they were useless.” The suspicious inconsistencies aside, it is hard to see how Shenu’s death had anything to do with German or even European asylum policy. If there was to be a moral panic, Turkey and its lax enforcement operations against smugglers would have been a more appropriate target; the Arab states which consistently refused to accept Syrian refugees would have been another. But details do not matter in the hysterical style of politics; it is all about images and emotions, that is the whole advantage of this approach.

Its disadvantage, is that hysteria turns out to be an ephemeral thing. Sooner or later the emotions boil off and you are left in a new and somewhat more broken world. The bloom first faded from the rose with the New Years Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, which was merely our first introduction to the rough behaviour of our new guests. In the years since, Germans have realised that refugees can be no solution to our ageing workforce; 62% of all German unemployment benefits are presently spent on migrants, the descendants of migrants, or their families. Now that we have opened our borders, though, it has proven all but impossible to close them again; merely housing and feeding the ever greater migrant waves has brought the state to its limits and beyond them.

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