The Faith of Crisis


Last week’s “Athenian Legacies: European Debates on Citizenship” was an unusually thought-provoking conference. The technical thoughts were professionally and well-provoked, and the setting prompted unbidden reflections. It’s hard to think of a better place than Athens to discuss topics like assumptions about human nature in constitutional law, ingroup-outgroup formation, contested and reassertive circles of family, tribe, village, state and federation, or the asynchronous imperatives to gradually form and suddenly rally a citizenry. The papers rolled on, and we strolled between sessions, talking and admiring the overwintering fruit trees.

One palpable and recurring theme was the nature and meaning of the conference itself. Our hosts, whose generosity was superb and elegant throughout, told us repeatedly how difficult it was to stage the event, and that its success is a testimony to Greece’s continued ability to function and do the necessary great things. Though cynicism and misanthropy are the staples of my trade, our hosts were entirely right.

Crises are opportunities, as PR men and insurance ads agree. Stability is the ignorants’ illusion and crisis is the norm, any historian will tell you, laws evolve in the breach, and Jefferson, Jacques Roux, Kropotkin and other fans of extra-legal crises present them as the engine of society’s wholesome dialectic. But how can you tell a crisis? Surely it ranks with “democracy,” “ethical standards” and “inflation-proof” as one of the most routinely abused buzzwords that bear the load of our public discourses’ all-pervasive ambiguity. Without context it’s unclear who does the judging, who is being judged, what goals came under threat. Yet its utility diminishes as its clarity rises. Without context it grabs and holds attention as well as “emergency,” and like emergency, it unites us in a search for solutions. The vaguer the crisis, the louder the clarion call ...

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