Conversation #14: Marek Kohn

Photo credit: Monika Stachyra

Marek Kohn is a British author and journalist. Much of his work is about the implications of scientific thinking in relation to human nature and society; his books exploring these themes include A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination; As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind and The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science. The ideas explored in these books influenced Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good, which in turn helped build the framework for Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles Will Change the World Heats Up.

Marek writes on many themes for a wide range of publications, and also presented his ideas in talks and broadcasts. He lives in Brighton with his wife and son, has a PhD from the University of Brighton and a BSc in Neurobiology from the University of Sussex, and is currently working on his next book.

You can find out more about Marek and his writing by visiting his website

I’m delighted that Marek, who I met in the Twittersphere, agreed to be my next interviewee and to tell me more about Club Europ Express, which I will write about more in a feature post coming soon. Here’s my chat with Marek:

  1. Please tell me where you are from, where you currently live and work, and what you do.

I was born in England and live on the south coast of it, in Brighton. I’m a writer; much of my work is about the implications of scientific thinking for ideas about human nature and society.

  1. Which European languages can you speak?

English and Polish, the latter very badly but with feeling.

3. Would you describe yourself as European? Is this important to you? Is your national identity more important?

Yes, I would, and yes, it is important to me, profoundly so, especially because I don’t have a single, simple national identity. Under present circumstances, I think of myself as European first.

  1. When you think of the European Union, what is the first thing you think of?

Europe’s great redemptive project, transcending its history of internal division and conflict. The EU is not the whole of that project, but it is its main institution.

5. Do you feel as though the European Union is beneficial to area you work in? Can you support your answer with examples?

In the area I write about, science, there seems to be overwhelming agreement that the EU is a force for discovery, co-operation and knowledge.

  1. Does Europe inspire you professionally or personally? If so, how?

I guess I’m what you might call a committed European. I thrill to the anthem and warm to the flag. In my work, I’ve committed myself to doing what I can for openness, inclusion and diversity in the face of the threats that these now face. That is a worldwide struggle, but its European theatre is the one I’m most aware of, and feel most deeply about.

  1. What do you think of the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK?

I was devastated by the vote, but not surprised that the traditional British view of history edged it. What I never expected was the absence of any sense on the part of the government or the main opposition party that the preferences of such a large minority – almost half the voters – should be reflected in resulting policies. It turns out that a country that takes such pride in having an unwritten constitution has a shockingly shallow understanding of democracy.

  1. Do you think the EU helps maintain peace?

Yes. The EU is a system for increasing the extent to which its members share common interests, so it forms the economic basis for peace in the region. It also embodies the ideological and moral commitment to not resuming Europe’s history of conflict.

  1. Do you feel as though you have a lot in common with people from European countries other than your own? Can you give examples?

Certainly. A family tree, for one thing.

  1. Are you involved in any campaigning activity related to the UK referendum result? If so, please tell me more about it. What would success look like for your campaign?

I’m involved with Club Europ Express, which is not a campaign, but a different way of being active for Europe. We have a monthly night with music, conversations, performances and video link-ups with people in other European countries. And cocktails, such as the ‘Ode to Joy’. Our slogan is ‘Because we’re still European’.

The question of success reminds me of the satirist Peter Cook’s remark that he modelled his Establishment Club on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.’ We’re successful to the extent that people respond to our slogan, that we bring them together to form a local European community, and that they have a really good time when they come to the club. For me, these are small, local steps towards reviving Europe at the grass roots by bringing Europeans together, person to person.

  1. How would you feel about ‘ever closer union’ or a ‘United States of Europe’?

Europe should strive for ‘ever closer union’, although the process will be uneven and never complete. Nor would it necessarily lead towards a ‘United States’.

  1. Do you have a favourite place in Europe? If so, where is it and why do you love it?

The Old Town. It has a cobbled square, lots of gothic overhangs, colourful heraldry featuring lions and boars’ heads, narrow alleys and not many right angles. It is in my imagination, as well as in the middle of many European cities, and I love it because it is the heart of my Europe.

  1. Which European national stereotypes are true, in your experience?

The ones about the English.

  1. Where is the best place in Europe to drink coffee? What would you order?

In the Old Town. An Americano, as it happens.

  1. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Europe today?

The growing European complex of nativism, national egotism, xenophobia and paranoia.

  1. Name a place in Europe you have not visited, but would like to. Why?

Norway. Fjords, Northern Lights.

  1. What do you think is the most significant moment in European history? Why?

The defeat of Nazi Germany, after which a new movement of European nations not only said ‘never again’ but took decisive steps to prevent wars between European nations ever happening again.

  1. Do you think the UK will leave the EU in 2019?

Almost certainly, but with the stress on ‘almost’. Lengthening odds are no reason to give up on trying to stay as close as possible to the rest of Europe, when the consequences of leaving will be so grave and profound.

  1. Are you hopeful for the future of Europe?

Yes. The transformation that Europe achieved in the second half of the last century shows that its better nature is extraordinarily resilient and strong. But it will need all the help it can get, from Europeans both inside and outside the Union.

Twitter: @marekkohn


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