Saturday, August 28, 2004
From Europe to America
I'm back from the European Forum in Alpbach (where I was referred to as "herzig," which I think is good). Many thanks to Lindsay for keeping things active while I was away. Only after getting there did I understand what the Forum is about, partly because it is such a sprawling multi-dimensional thing that a focus can be hard to pinpoint. There are many events involving all sorts of discussions on politics, culture, and anything else (science is represented, but only as an amusing distraction). The seminar week, which is what I was there for, is almost a summer school; twelve seminars go on for a week of lectures, and about three hundred students (largely graduate and professional students) from throughout Europe come to listen and participate in the discussions. But the definition of "student" is pretty loose, and a good number were well past their student days.
What became clear only gradually was that, since most of the students are interested in public policy questions, many of the attendees are there largely to network amongst their fellow students, rather than to actually attend the seminars. And the seminars they did attend were those that related in some way to their careers; i.e. questions of European politics. So everyone was interested in our little cosmology discussion, but very few people actually came to it.
That's okay, since you can still learn interesting things by talking to the other attendees. Issues of the European Union were especially popular, for understandable reasons. Someone gave me an article to read by Stephen Breyer, my favorite Supreme Court Justice (although if Kathleen Sullivan is ever appointed, she will be granted this coveted honor), musing about the new European Constitution. It was fascinating reading, especially because Breyer was trying very hard to be polite but clearly has substantial worries about the new document.
One of his worries is obvious: the new constitution is far too long (about eighty percent of it should be cut, in Breyer's estimation). In an effort to keep everybody happy, the framers have stuck all sorts of things into the constitution that should be ordinary law. One of the crucial features of a constitution is that it should be possible, but very hard and extremely rare, to amend it; so it should stick to enshrining absolutely bedrock principles rather than including every policy we might agree upon at the moment. (He also points out that the European court will have over twenty justices, speaking multiple languages, and can't resist mentioning the difficulty that he and his eight very capable colleagues sometimes have in reaching consensus, even in a common language.)
The more subtle of Breyer's points is the ease with which the constitution will allow centralization of power. From personal experience, he knows how ambiguous language in a constitution can be interpreted to funnel more authority to the federal government. He mentions the example of education, where the constitution innocently gives the European Commission power to pass rules to facilitate cooperation and compatibility between the educational systems of the member states. Who could object? Well, cooperation takes a lot of forms -- Breyer imagines that before too long the EC will be passing whatever regulations it likes on school systems throughout Europe, all in the name of increased cooperation. It will be interesting to see how the constitution actually fares in action (although they did manage to keep Christianity out of the preamble, despite heavy Papal lobbying).
So, while we're at it, do Europeans hate Americans? Well, the participants at Alpbach are traditionally conservative, establishment-oriented types, who generally are more pro-American than their lefty counterparts. But one over-simplified way to describe the current situation is that both left-wing and right-wing Europeans are horrified by our current administration. They don't hate Americans, but the disgust with the Bush regime is palpable. Of course, these are people who will willingly sit through hours of discussion and dialogue relating intricate philosophical questions to concrete issues of policy; something tells me Bush wouldn't like them, either.