Despite the fact that she had a history class until 5:25, Bwogger Victoria Arancio was ready for another dose of modern European History by 6. Not only did she learn the name of “that weird orange house next to Low,” but she learned more about how historians treat political transparency.
After a nice leisurely stroll around campus, I found my way into Buell Hall for the a panel discussion and book talk centered on Stefanos Geroulanos’ recent book, Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present. Geroulanos, an Associate Professor of European History and the Director of the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences at NYU, focused on Europe’s political atmosphere in the 20th century with input from other panelists: all Columbia professors. Professors Ayten Gundogdu, Turkuler Isiksel and Thomas Dodman helped bring the discussion into the American sphere, directing questions towards global historical context during the Cold War. With political transparency seen as a national issue today, the panel drew its own conclusions on the Trump Administration.
Geroulanos began the discussion with modern examples of what transparency has become in the 21st century. At the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term in 2009, one of the first things that he aimed to accomplish was to make the federal government more transparent, following a loss of faith in the Bush Administration and foreshadowing challenges with what would be the Great Recession. Similarly, former Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain made transparency his priority back in 2010, making the government more accountable, responsible, and open. Geroulanos argues that there is an “apparent use of transparency as a political tool” that attempts to celebrate the ideal while doing the opposite. Today, it is difficult to find examples of transparency that aren’t politically motivated.
While Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present may focus specifically on France, the discussion landed on the identity of the Europe as a whole after the devastation of World War II. Despite the idealistic “open government” concept adopted by the United States and Germany, France seemed to stand out with a different approach to policymaking: according to Geroulanos, the French tended to not put a lot of importance in the government being transparent, but rather valued its government based on its effectiveness and action. France was in contrast, a country that was instead still strongly attached to the philosophy and ethics of the Enlightenment, using the ideas of Lacan and Foucault guide them through the Cold War. While countries like the United States, Germany and the USSR strived to appear more responsible and accountable to their political base, the French viewed this idea of transparency as an illusion, and “pure stupidity,” according to Geroulanos. This transparency was one that carried little weight: one that was see-through, only created to deceive the public.
The discussion continued through the decades following World War II, commenting on critical moments in modern history when many experienced political disruption. With European countries shifting, growing, and redeveloping, nations did their best to prevent a full-blown nuclear war. Referencing current global tension, a fundamental question was asked: is transparency and the idea of government openness good or bad? When analyzing the historical shift from the Cold War to the 21st century, how do we handle political conflict in the Information Age?
The answer is difficult to articulate: while Geroulanos argues that transparency is essentially a “bad marketing tool” used by politicians, he does point to the problems that come with President Trump’s unmediated behavior on Twitter. Trump’s administration is a living and breathing contradiction: while Trump boasts that he has nothing to hide, he refuses to show the American people his tax returns in full. When examples of collusion with the Russian government is found underneath his nose, he denies any personal involvement, despite claiming that he has knowledge of everything that happens in the White House. President Trump has declared a war on fake news, but creates fake news himself; on Twitter, he has 280 characters that punch holes into his own “transparent” administration. While we as a nation may be experiencing a shift in our expectations of our federal government, our apparent complacency with its partisan divide only proves that our country is struggling to find its footing in the 21st century. With the lack of national unity and trust in the government, America’s transparent veil has been lifted; but there’s no great Wizard of Oz hidden underneath that can solve our national problems: there is nothing.
Image via Wikimedia Commons