In a too-good-to-check item, the Daily Mirror reports that rapper Snoop Dogg recently attempted to rent the entire nation of Liechtenstein for a music video:
The request surprised authorities in the state of Liechtenstein - population 35,000 with an area of 61.7 square miles between Switzerland and Austria.
Local property lease agent Karl Schwaerzler said: "We've had requests for palaces and villages but never one to hire the whole country before."
He admitted: "It would have been possible." But the deal fell through because Snoop's management "did not give us enough time".
So take note music video producers, filmmakers, and wedding/bar mitzvah planners, it apparently is possible to rent a sovereign principality in Western Europe as long as you give them enough notice.
Hat tip: New York Magazine
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The Parisians who flooded the streets of France's capital city this morning -- part of a countrywide push-back against President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposed austerity plan (which includes, among other simply intolerable measures, a new retirement age of 62) -- are grabbing headlines this week, but their attempts at mobilization pale in comparison to the budding subversion of another, surprising set of malcontents: unhappy -- and, as it turns out, unlawful -- commuters.
Recently, turnstile hoppers (hardly a new breed of traveler in the Parisian subway system) have ratcheted up their disdain for transit regulations, coming together in so-called mutuelles des fraudeurs to protect themselves against fare-dodging fines -- and, while they're at it, to stick it to the man. The mutuelles resemble a hybrid insurance agency and support group: Members pay monthly dues of about $8.50 and, in return, are guaranteed full reimbursement for any fines they receive for "forgoing" the proper subway fee. (Typical fares are $2; typical fines are $60.) There are a few technicalities, of course: For example, members are strongly urged to pay their fines to officials upfront and are only assured compensation by the mutuelle if they show up in person at weekly meetings (usually held in avant-garde coffee shops).
Fare-dodging may look like a straightforward variation on petty theft -- a money-saving technique that regrettably comes at the expense of the law -- but the "fradeurs" insist they're not just pinching pennies: They're taking a stand. "Gildas" (a mutuelle leader who, in the true style of a subversive, declines to give his last because "we don't like this type of questions") has a surprisingly well-thought-out -- if ill-reasoned -- explanation for his behavior.
"There are things in France which are supposed to be free - schools, health. So why not transportation? It's not a question of money.... It's a political question."
He fashions himself as a historic revolutionary, not an everyday criminal: "It's a way to resist together," he says. "We can make solidarity."
Lest any American commuters (or communists) start getting ideas, be warned: At least in Virginia, Metro miscreants pay for their mistakes with a visit to court.
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When hate crimes strike the Dutch capital, the police officers head to the costume store. Amsterdam's law enforcement regularly disguises themselves as members of a persecuted faction, patrols the streets incognito, and then arrests any violent perpetrators they encounter. In response to a spike in muggings, officers posed as pensioners and "grannies"; to combat harassment of the homosexual community, officers of the same sex acted affectionate in public. Now Dutch police will go undercover again -- this time with the earlocks and black top-hats of ultra-orthodox Jews.
Proposed by a Dutch Muslim legislator, the new James Bond-like approach to fighting anti-Semitism comes in the wake of a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks, reportedly instigated most frequently by Moroccan immigrants. The Jewish population in the city, numbering at 40,000, has indeed seen these attacks double from 2008 to 2009 - an increase attributed in large part to the Gaza Strip military offensive in January of 2009. Reported incidents range from punishable internet hate speech in the region to verbal tormenting and severe physical assaults on the streets. This past weekend, a Jewish broadcasting company followed a skullcap-donning rabbi through city streets with a candid camera; the footage revealed many young men shouting ethnic slurs at the rabbi and gesturing with Nazi salutes as he passed by.
A debate persists in the city over whether the police force's proposed clandestine operations are really capable of tackling the underlying prejudice festering in Amsterdam, or whether they merely reify superficial stereotypes and circumvent the rudimentary issues at stake. Many -- the former city mayor among them -- argue that awareness and education is the expedient solution. Either way, with the Jewish community suffering the brunt of mounting violence in Amsterdam, it probably couldn't hurt for an otherwise oblivious citizen to walk a mile in a rabbi's kippah - even if just while on patrol.
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Muammar Qaddafi has eradicated and restructured the Libyan calendar, publicly supported international terrorism and then called the Security Council the "terror council," ordered an entourage of virgin bodyguards and a Saharan camel to accompany him to public events, and even demanded that the U.N. abolish Switzerland.
So what's the next move from the maniacal megalomaniac? The most shocking of all: a random act of kindness. Colonel Qaddafi has personally procured a plan to save a fledgling Italian town, ostensibly harboring no motivation in the project aside from altruism and affection.
The fateful meeting between Qaddafi and his newly adopted medieval mountain town was love at first sight. Last year, while traveling to the G8 Summit, Qaddafi feared the recent 6.3 magnitude earthquake had weakened the infrastructure in central Italy and demanded his caravan take a detour. The new route took Qaddafi through the financially struggling town of Antrodoco, where the 2,800-person population showed him such warmth and hospitality that he reportedly declared, "You have entered my heart and I won't forget you." Promptly after his return home, Qaddafi sent his Roman ambassador and various other envoys to the village with promises of building luxury hotels, clean-water manufacturing plants, and a sports complex, and a general commitment to facilitating improvements in tourism and employment rates. A week-long conference to discuss the plans is now in the works.
It's a bit difficult to imagine Qaddafi and his motorway pulling around a mountain bend somewhere in Italy, the Libyan leader emerging from the depths of his flashy limousine -- decked out in his floor-length cape and Miami Vice-inspired G8 Summit suit, no less -- as Antrodoco's knight in shining armor. Then again, it was difficult to imagine him inviting five-hundred models to an evening out on the town, only to give each a personal copy of the Koran and attempt to convert them to Islam. Touché, Colonel -- you've surprised us again.
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The big story out of yesterday's Dutch elections was the success of Geert Wilders' anti-Islam, anti-immigration Freedom Party. The party nearly tripled its seats in parliament going from 9 to 24 and will likely be invited to join a coalition government by the overall winner, the center-right Liberal Party. Wilders did significantly better than was indicated by pre-election polls, which had him finighing the night with only 18 seats. Many commentators see the infamous Bradley effect at work:
"The fact that Wilders' Freedom Party gained more than pre-election polls had forecast could be partly explained by voters being reluctant to admit they will vote for a controversial candidate due to social desirability reasons," said Alfred Pijpers, a senior political researcher at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
The phenomenon is known as the Bradley effect, after Tom Bradley, the Los Angeles mayor who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite being ahead in voter polls.
Pijpers added that the popularity of Wilders could further be attributed to a moderation of his tone during the last weeks of the campaign. "He started to smile more and let go of his strong anti-Islam rhetoric," Pijpers said.
Having seen Wilders turn on the charm in person, I can imagine that he's a pretty strong campaigner, but his stance on Islam pretty much defines his brand as a politician and I find it hard to believe that he changed perceptions that much in the final weeks.
A number of readers jumped on me for accepting the Bradley Effect -- the idea that voters lie to voters to avoid being perceived as racist -- as an easy causal explanation after the French National Front's surprisingly strong showing in regional elections in March. And yes, this is still a controversial idea in U.S. politics as well. But with Wilders' and Le Pen's gains, not to mention the 59 percent of Swiss voters who supported the minaret ban compared to the 37 percent who said they would, this does seem to be a factor in the recent rise of the European far-right.
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Now the pressure is really on for the U.S. to beat Britain in the World Cup opening match this Saturday, because a free meal for the American ambassador is on the line.
Politico has released an email exchange between the U.S. and British ambassadors in which they make a wager on the outcome of their countries' upcoming "football" face-off. The terms? Ambassador of the losing team buys ambassador of the winning team dinner at the winner's favorite restaurant.
The trash-talking then spilled over to a back-and-forth between embassies, ending with a blow from the (overconfident) British: "The [American] Ambassador takes his steak like American soccer victories - somewhat rare."
Oh, England. I guess you're still struggling with that inferiority complex we embedded into your psychology back in 1950...
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Loyal readers of this blog know that we have a long-running obsession with the ongoing cultural-linguistic dispute in Belgium -- Leffe-anon for short. The situation is looking a bit more serious this week with a party led by outspoken Flemish nationalist Bart de Wever poised to win a majority in this weekend's national elections:
What once seemed a fantasy of the political fringes suddenly has, in the mouth of a man seen as a possible prime minister, taken on an air of plausibility.
"We are in each other's face," he told 800 party faithful ahead of Sunday's vote. "And together we are going downhill fast."
De Wever's party is forecast to win 26 percent of the vote – way up from 3.2 percent in 2007. That means his party will probably emerge as the biggest in Parliament with the right to try to cobble together a coalition government. However, he is unlikely to get other mainstream parties to vote for a Belgian breakup.
That is why De Wever seeks no immediate split but advocates a gradual and orderly breakup of Belgium to punish Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists for three years of political gridlock that has prevented them from addressing Belgium's urgent economic problems.
Some of the fringier elements of the Flemish nationalist movement are likely to gain as well:
The far-right Vlaams Belang, forecast to win about 15 percent of the vote in Flanders, denounces what it calls a Nazi-style "Anschluss" (annexation) by French speakers of Flemish territory in their push for "Lebensraum" (living space).
Gooik's Mayor Doomst, using quite different language, says the Flemish feel insulted by a refusal of French-speakers to negotiate. It is why opinion polls show 40-45 percent of Flemish voters will support separatist parties, he says.
The stumbling block as usual is Brussels, a French city in the middle of a Flemish region. While an immediate divorce is highly unlikely, this weekend's result seems likely to prolong the country's political dysfunction. The other subplot of this is that Belgium is scheduled to take over the rotating European Union presidency on July 1, meaning that the EU is likely to be led by a government in the process of slowly dissolving itself.
In the much-discussed cover story of this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Lynn Hirschberg profiles M.I.A., née Maya Arulpragasam, the British-by-way-of-Sri-Lanka musician whose third album comes out later this summer. It's an interesting piece (even if its subject doesn't think so), not least because it's the first celebrity profile I've read that begins with a thorough parsing of Sri Lankan dissident politics. The subject comes up because a frequent touchstone in M.I.A.'s music is her father's resume: He was as a founder of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a militant group with ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization that helped lay the groundwork for the modern Tamil statehood movement before being superseded by the more violent Tamil Tigers.
Although her father never actually had anything to do with the Tigers, M.I.A. championed the organization's cause (albeit sort of vaguely) throughout its guerrilla war with government forces in northern Sri Lanka, a war with few good guys. (By happenstance, M.I.A.'s own ascent to popularity over the course of her first two records happened mostly between the breakdown of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers in 2006 and the rebels' defeat in 2009.) Her support is a matter of considerable annoyance to activists concerned with bringing about some sort of lasting peace on the island. "It's very unfair when you condemn one side of this conflict," Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum tells Hirschberg. "The Tigers were killing people, and the government was killing people. It was a brutal war, and M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn't seem to know the complexity of what these groups do."
Hirschberg mines this vein unsparingly -- you know the knives are out when a writer pulls the old take-a-radical-artist-to-a-fancy-restaurant trick:
Unity holds no allure for Maya - she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. "I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist."
A whole genre of art is, by association, coming in for a drubbing here: the venerable agitprop tradition in which M.I.A. has positioned herself. In music, the legacy runs back through Public Enemy, who championed Louis Farrakhan, and the Clash, who called their classic 1980 album Sandinista!; elsewhere, you've got Warhol's Mao paintings, of course, and pretty much everything Jean Luc Godard has ever said. It's different from the standard political peregrinations of artists and celebrities in that the art is inextricable from the politics, and from their audaciousness -- the Clash record would have sold somewhat worse if it had been called Social Democrat!
This is the line in the sand between the postmodern chilliness of M.I.A.'s radical politics and, say, the heartfelt socialism of Woody Guthrie -- the aesthetic of conflict, rather than any particular policy ambition, is the point. To Hirschberg, it suggests an unflattering comparison:
Like a trained politician, [M.I.A.] stays on message. It's hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.
I think this is a more damning indictment of politics than it is of M.I.A. -- whose music is, all things considered, pretty great, if not quite up to the precedents of London Calling or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Stitching an aesthetic out of politics is at the end of the day pretty harmless; assembling a politics out of aesthetics, not so much.
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This finals of this year's Eurovision Song Contest are this Saturday in Oslo. An a non-European, I'll admit to being a bit confused by the whole thing. The nationalism, the inter-country rivalries, the corruption, the over-the-top flamboyance and bizarrely out-of-place homophobia, the offensive singing turkeys, Lordi... what does it all mean?
So I decided I would turn to the people who can also be counted on to make difficult ideas accessible to the general public... academics! For such a ridiculous event, Eurovision has attracted a surprising amount of attention from serious scholars over the years. A lot of this revolves around the contest's unique voting and scoring system, which encourages bloc voting an, since the fall of communism, has tended to favor Eastern European countries.
In 2006, Derek Gatherer of Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry took a break from his day job working on "bioinformatical, marketing and drug design projects" to write "Comparison of Eurovision Song Contest Simulation with Actual Results Reveals Shifting Patterns of Collusive Voting Alliances" for the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation. In addition to providing mathematical data demonstrating bloc voting among countries, Gatherer provides this defense of both the contest itself and its enduring interest to researchers:
A common objection to any academic analysis of the Eurovision Song Contest is that it is an irrelevancy, an out-dated farrago of dubious taste born in an era of naïve enthusiasm for European unity, and taking little account of the best current products of the pop music industry. This view is quite common among mainstream intellectuals and has led to periodic calls for the contest to be scrapped altogether, or alternatively to be reformed to incorporate either music that reflects national folk traditions (which has been unilaterally attempted on occasions by both Norway and Spain among others) or to include "serious" pop music (a U2-rovision, as one television commentator jokingly suggested). This view is itself now becoming something of an anachronism, as the potential of the contest for post-modern irony and its appeal to the homosexual community (e.g. Lemish 2004 and Tan 2005) have provided it with a certain alternative vogue that was absent 15 or 20 years ago. It is also clear that many of the countries of what has been termed "the new Europe" see the contest as a means of advertising their new independence and European identity to the outside world. The contest now operates successfully on two levels, appealing equally to western post-modernists who revel in the very tastelessness and contempt for "serious" pop music that appalled the previous intellectual generation, and also to emerging states rediscovering the pan-European spirit of the contest's founders. The contest is now an important cultural phenomenon meriting academic study.
The godfather of this academic study seems to be Hebrew University sociologist Gad Yair, who first studied the contest's voting patterns in 1995, "Unite Unite Europe' The political and cultural structures of Europe as reflected in the Eurovision Song Contest." One year later, he revisited the topic along with colleague Daniel Maman in "The Persistent Structure of Hegemony
in the Eurovision Song Contest.":
By analyzing the patterns of relations between four empirically derived European blocs, this study shows that hegemony results from the unique structural position that
the Western bloc occupies. This bloc enjoys a persistent position of a tertius gaudens that results from the fact that (a) nations in this bloc favor each other and export few points to other blocs; (b) the Northern and Mediterranean blocs avoid each other, and therefore allocate their surplus votes to the Western bloc. The Western bloc longitudinally sustains its hegemonic position through the persistence of between- and within-bloc exchange relations. The assumed veil of ignorance legitimizes this structural advantage. We propose that the fairness of the 'veil or ignorance' both secures hegemony and - when analyzed appropriately - helps to uncover it.
Further evidence of bloc voting is provided by a time of Oxford physicists and engineers in 2008's "How Does Europe Make Its Mind Up?: Connections, Cliques and Compatibility Between Countries in the Eurovision Song Contest. [Original emphasis.]" In particiular these authors focus on evidence of "pro-European" vs. "Euroskeptic" tendencies within particular blocs.
But there are plenty of other questions that Eurovision can answer, or futher complicate depending on your point of view. In 2003, economists Marco Haan, Gerhard, Dijkstra, and Peter Dijkstra, used evidence wrote "Expert Judgment versus Public Opinion - Evidence from the Eurovision Song Contest" an attempt to judge empirically whether experts are "better judges of quality" than the general public (They are).
Bosnian-born MIT architectural historian Azra Aksamija may have written one of the more ambitious takes on the contest with "Eurovision Song Contest: Between Symbolism of European Unity and a Vision of the Wild, Wild East," which asks, "Is Eurovision just a TV spectacle for “appeasing the masses; is it a venue for marketing institutional political ideas; or are we, as a matter of fact, witnessing a new Europe in the making?"
I'm not sure this is quite what the framers of the Maastrict Treaty had in mind, but who knows?
In any event, there's a brand new voting system this year so journal editors should prepare for a deluge of new submissions.
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Tough times call for tough sacrifices. Economies everywhere, desperate to continue their uphill climb out of the global recession, have imbibed this sound logic, however grudgingly. The French, however, don't seem agree with the conventional wisdom: strikes erupted this morning across the country in response to President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to bump the retirement age from 60 to-gasp!-61 or 62.
Sarkozy has defended the new measure as a reasonable adjustment given increasing life expectancy. Indeed, he might be excused for merely following in the footsteps of his European colleagues-Germany recently raised the retirement age from 65 to 67. (Then again, these days any comparison to Angela Merkel may do more harm than help.)
So far, the French aren't buying the President's explanations, bringing the country to a near stand-still. 14 percent of teachers and 8 percent of hospital workers left work today to participate in protests, airport travel was disrupted, and even news agencies took a hit. NPR reported that "because there aren't enough journalists available to deliver news bulletins, the main public radio news channel in Paris is playing pop music intermittently."
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We all know that it's shaping up to be a bad election cycle for incumbent politicians in the United States. But the opposition insurgents, Republican or Democratic, who are eventually swept into office this year shouldn't forget that they owe their victories, not least, to America's two-party system. The voters' recession-fueled outrage is inevitably mitigated by the ballot's structured "either-or" choice.
For a sense of the potential fallout from a more open election, America's political class might want to take a peek at Iceland, one of the countries hardest hit by the global financial crisis. This weekend, the capital city of Reykjavik is set to hold city council elections that will determine the next mayor and according to current polls, the prospective winner will be the simply-named "Best Party," a grouping formed only seven months ago by Jon Gnarr, one of Iceland's best-known comedians.
Gnarr insists that the party intends to seriously govern, but large stretches of the campaign manifesto -- in which Gnarr promises a polar bear at the city zoo and a Disneyland at the airport -- suggest that he hadn't originally expected to become mayor.
One only wonders what the U.S. Congress would end up looking like if there were credible third parties running advertisements as effective as the Best Party's four-minute campaign music video (with English subtitles and set, naturally, to Tina Turner's "We're Simply the Best".) Maybe the Tea Party should consider adopting into its platform some of the Best Party's more anodyne positions -- "Topnotch stuff as a general rule," for example?
It seems like just yesterday that we were asking ourselves if the United States was Rome. In light of the financial collapse in the other great cradle of Mediterranean civilization, the New York Times' David Leonhardt poses the inevitable follow-up question:
It’s easy to look at the protesters and the politicians in Greece -- and at the other European countries with huge debts -- and wonder why they don’t get it. They have been enjoying more generous government benefits than they can afford. No mass rally and no bailout fund will change that. Only benefit cuts or tax increases can.
Yet in the back of your mind comes a nagging question: how different, really, is the United States?
The U.S.'s national debt, Leonhardt notes, is projected to rise to 140 percent of GDP within the next twenty years -- Greece's is 115 percent today.
Elsewhere at the Times, Paul Krugman questions the credibility of that long-range projection and argues that the U.S. shouldn't worry:
Basically, the United States can expect economic recovery to bring the deficit down substantially; Greece, which has a larger structural deficit and also faces a grinding adjustment to overvaluation with the eurozone, can’t.
About that eurozone: in a phenomenally awkward bit of timing, Estonia happened to be trying to join it today, and succeeded. Other countries like Poland and Bulgaria, however, are having second thoughts. Greece's current predicament, and the looming crises in Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere, have offered a cautionary tale. The Associated Press looks at the divergent experiences of Hungary and Romania, which are members of the European Union but not the eurozone, and Greece, which is in both: When the IMF bailed out Hungary and Romania in 2009, the countries were able to make the necessary adjustments quickly, if painfully, by letting their currencies fall. Greece, however, can't, and is now looking at far harsher, more drawn-out austerity measures attached to its 110 billion euro bailout.
Some ominous news out of Ireland:
Ireland's Aviation Authority says it may impose a no-fly zone over the country Tuesday because of concerns about the southward drift of volcanic ash from Iceland.
The authority says northeasterly winds are causing the ash cloud, originating from southern Iceland, to drift south to Ireland. It has informed Irish-based airlines it may be forced to restrict flights. [...]
Iceland's Meteorological Office said a change of wind direction in the past few days meant that the ash cloud was blowing south and southeast toward Europe, rather than northward over Iceland.
Ireland's airspace was the first to close during the April ash crisis. It will be interesting to watch whether European aviation authorities will be quite so cautious this time if the ash returns to the continent.
There are a lot of bizarre things in this Der Spiegel intervew with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, which focuses largely on his ongoing feud with the country of Switzerland, including the hard-to-believe claim that he's only now hearing that his son Hannibal was accused of assault in Geneva in 2008 . But Qaddafi's most over-the-top claim may be that Switzerland's legalized assisted suicide facilities are actually some kind of secret death camp:
SPIEGEL: Don't Libyans also have secret accounts in Switzerland?
Gadhafi: Yes, there are also Libyans who have such accounts, and many of them have also died in unexplained ways. All around the world, the families of these people are going to sue Switzerland. And one more thing: Switzerland is the only country that allows euthanasia. Why does only Switzerland do that?
SPIEGEL: Medical euthanasia is also legal in the Netherlands. And, it cannot go unmentioned that Libya has previously had citizens killed abroad who were said to be disloyal.
Gadhafi: But we are talking now about Switzerland. It is possible that among the Libyans who you are asking about -- and who died abroad -- there were also some who died because they had secret accounts in Switzerland.
SPIEGEL: And you are seriously maintaining that Switzerland as a state ordered the killing of these people?Gadhafi: The investigations will show this. And this brings me back once again to the phenomenon of assisted suicide. A large number of people have been deliberately eliminated under this pretext. Switzerland maintains that these individuals expressed the desire to take their lives. But in reality it was done to get at their money. More than 7,000 people have died like this. I am thus calling for Switzerland to be dissolved as a state. The French part should go to France, the Italian part to Italy and the German part to Germany.
Qaddafi's claims are obviously ridiculous. But it also should be said that the assisted sucicide clinic Dignitas and its megalomaniacal director Ludwig Minelli -- most recently back in the news after police found thousands of cremation urns in Lake Zurich -- have a Kevorkianesque ability to make their own cause look really bad. They haven't really done wonders for their host country's image either.
Belgium's government is barely functional right now, hampered by a decades long power struggle between Flemish and Wallonian politicians. But the two sides do seem to be able to agree on one thing:
The lower house of parliament voted on Thursday to ban clothes or veils that did not allow the wearer to be fully identified, including the full-body veil, known as the burqa, and the face veil which leaves slits for the eyes, known as the niqab.
A cross-party consensus of 136 deputies voted for the measure, with just two abstentions and no opposing votes.
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The biggest gaffe yet of the British general election was uttered today, and it's potentially devastating for Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour's chances. The British media, long salivating for its first taste of blood, is not surprisingly relishing the chance to stir up the frenzy.
After an impromptu conversation with voter Gillian Duffy in at a campaign stop Rochdale, during which she expressed her concerns about British immigration policy rather bluntly, Brown is heard on a still-hot microphone calling the conversation a "disaster," and describing Duffy as a "bigoted woman." Yikes. Here's the full exchange, courtesy of the New York Times:
"You can't say anything about the immigrants, all these Eastern Europeans coming in, where are they flocking from?"
The episode brings to light President Barack Obama's infamous "bitter" remarks regarding small-town voters before the Pennsylvania democratic presidential primary in 2008. But Obama was merely guilty of poor word choice, not outright hostility -- and the substantive point he made was largely accurate. Brown, on the other hand, has been caught disparaging a voter immediately after hearing her policy concerns.
British journalists are claiming this will cripple Brown, as voters with similar concerns will now wonder whether the prime minister thinks they're bigots as well. But to be fair, if Duffy's comment wasn't bigoted, it was certainly quite close to crossing that line.
Brown has now personally apologized to Duffy (it is said it went quite well), and reporters are camped on her front stoop, waiting for her response. More to come.
UPDATE: It's pointed out on Andrew Sparrow's live blog for the Guardian that Brown's exact quote was "sort of a bigoted woman," which is somewhat less harsh.
Sparrow also referenced a Channel 4 news report, during which a Rochdale resident used a variation of the "having said that" line:
One woman says: "I'm not racist, but I admit they're taking all the jobs and houses – there's several of them round here."
Lastly, actor Simon Pegg has given his (rather amusing) spin, claiming on his Twitter feed to have discovered the journalist responsible for picking up Brown's miscue.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The British Firm ITO, which specialized in vizualizations of transport networks, put together this very cool animation showing European air traffic from April 16-21, as the ash cloud from Iceland's volcanic eruption was lifting and air traffic was returning to normal. There are a few holes in the data -- much of France for instance -- but you still get the picture.
Hat tip: Maria Popova via Twitter.
It appears that yet another Belgian government has fallen to the world's most boring interethnic feud:
Belgium King Albert II accepted the government's resignation Monday after negotiations failed to resolve a long-simmering dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians over a bilingual voting district in and around Brussels, the country's capital.
The king had waited since last week to see if last-ditch talks could keep the coalition government of Prime Minister Yves Leterme together. But late Monday, it became clear the differences between the linguistic groups were too deep. Elections could now be called in early June.
We've had some fun at Belgium's expense in the past on this blog, but the current flare-up comes at a particularly bad time for Belgium, just two months before the country takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union. This will expose, once again, the ironic fact that an organization dedicated to European unity is headquarted in a country whose own unity is continually under threat from a cultural and linguistic division. Expect Euroskeptics to launch more attacks like the U.K. Independence Party's Nigel Farage's bullying put-down of EU President Herman von Rompuy in January.
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The volcanic ash cloud hanging over Europe may be starting to dissipate, but some members of the European parliament say the situation has exposed glaring insufficiencies in the continent's train system:
"Member states should finally learn a lesson from what has happened," center-right deputy Marian-Jean Marinescu, a member of the assembly's transport committee, told the assembly in the French city of Strasbourg. "The modernization of our railway transportation is a priority. We talk a lot about it but don't do much. In Europe today you can't buy a train ticket to travel in a civilized way from the north of Europe to the south of Europe."
Rail travellers often complain they have to buy tickets for each stage of their journey if traveling between European countries, that it is hard to find clear information about international links and that the cost is often prohibitive.
Onboard conditions are sometimes deplorable. Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian Socialist, said he had in the past few days used trains and roads to travel from Belgrade to Vienna and from Vienna to Strasbourg, and found the trains "pretty grim."
"The toilets on the train were completely blocked because so many people were on the train and using them. The corridors were full of people sitting in them because there weren't enough seats," he said. "It was a pretty big disaster, I can assure you."
Of course, given that the private bullet train that shuttles MEPs between Strasbourg and Brussels every month is costing the European taxpayer about $300,000 per journey -- money that I would assume could be used to fund transportation for the commonfolk -- I'm not sure how much of a right they have to complain.
Having traveled by train in Europe, I've always found it a pretty easy way to get around, especially compared to Amtrak, and not particularly "grim" or "deplorable." But I guess there's certainly always room for improvement.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Governing Norway? There's an app for that.
Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, like thousands of others, has been stranded by the volcanic cloud hanging over Europe. But he seems to be managing:
Stoltenberg, who was in town for President Obama's nuclear summit, was due to return to his country Thursday. But thousands of flights to northern Europe were cancelled because of volcanic ash from the exploding Eyjafjallajokull volcano.
His solution? Stoltenberg pulled out the iPad he's presumably just bought and has started to govern his country with it.
"Due to the delays, I'll be working from New York," Norwegian newspapers reported the president as saying.
Spanish investigative judge Baltasar Garzon has made a name for himself by prosecuting human rights abusers around the world -- including former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet -- using universal jurisdiction to get around national amnesties. But Garzon is now himself being charged with abuse of power relating to an investigation of murder's and disappearances under the Franco regime. His supporters are now fighting back:
Lawyers representing Argentine relatives of three Spaniards and an Argentine killed during the 1936-39 war will ask the federal courts here Wednesday to open an investigation, and hope to add many more cases in the months to come.
So Garzon's supporters now hope to launch the same investigation - citing the same principles of international law - from Buenos Aires. And while Garzon limited the scope to crimes committed until 1952, the Argentine rights groups hope to address any state terror in Spain from 1936-1977, when its democracy was restored.Attorney Carlos Slepoy, a specialist in human rights law, told The Associated Press the plaintiffs are invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction, which provides that genocide and crimes against humanity "can be prosecuted by the courts of any country.
The choice of Argentina is interesting since it was Garzon who led the charge to prosecute military figures there for crimes committed during the 1976-83 dictatorship.
Garzon is currently being charged with violating a 1977 amnesty law designed to help Spain move on from the Franco years. I don't know nearly enough to weigh in on the legal questions involved here, but politically it doesn't look very good that Spain was willing to let Garzon prosecute abuses in other countries for years, but became uncomfortable with his tactics as soon as he started poking around in his own country's dirty laundry. This type of challenge should have been expected.
CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images
Not that terrorism is ever defensible as a political tactic, but it's at least possible to determine the political motivation behind a terrorist attack. That's not really true of the Real IRA's latest bombing, carried out just hours before London relinquished control of Northern Ireland's criminal justice system:
The Real IRA splinter group admitted responsibility for forcing a Belfast cabbie to drive the bomb to the gates of Palace Barracks, the high-security home of the anti-terrorist agency MI5 in Northern Ireland.
Senior police officers said the bomb could easily have killed or maimed civilians living beside the base in Holywood, a prosperous Belfast suburb, but for the bravery of the taxi driver. He had been ordered by three dissident gunmen to deliver the bomb to the base and not raise any alarm - or else he or his family members would be executed. But police said the man, who was not publicly identified, shouted "It's a bomb!" as soon as he parked outside a perimeter entrance.
Twenty minutes later, officers were still evacuating elderly couples and families from nearby houses when the bomb detonated, showering the roofs and front yards with shrapnel and debris but hitting nobody.
It's become a political cliche to describe terrorist attacks as "cowardly," but it's hard to think of another word for kidnapping a taxi driver's family and forcing him to drive your bomb into a residential neighborhood. The incompetence and rarity of the Real IRA's attacks make them unlikely to inspire widespread terror in the population, but their callousness and political tone-deafness make them unlikely to win any sympathy.
Plus, mainstream Republican politicians like onetime IRA commander turned Deputy Prime Minister Martin McGuiness don''t seem to have any reluctance to criticize the group's actions, calling them "a waste of time, totally futile, because the political landscape has changed forever."
Probably time to pack it in.
PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images
As survivors and the descendants march at Auschwitz today for Holocaust Remembrance Day, election results yesterday in nearby Hungary, where the far-right Jobbik party earned 16.7 percent of the vote, evoked memories of that time in a very different way:
Jobbik’s leader, Gabor Vona, 32, is a former history teacher who tapped into a growing nationalism fanned by economic hardship. He is a founding member of the Magyar Garda, an association whose uniforms are reminiscent of those worn by the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s wartime Nazi party. The group, which was outlawed last year but has not disbanded, has revived dark memories of World War II, when Jews and Roma were deported to concentration camps.
Analysts said Jobbik’s growing popularity illustrates how the economic crisis was helping to fuel a regional backlash against minorities, as people look for someone to blame. In Hungary, at least five Roma have been killed in the past two years and Roma leaders have counted about 30 firebomb attacks against their people’s homes.
Hungary’s Jewish population of nearly 100,000 has also been one of its targets, with Jobbik claiming that “foreign speculators,” including Israel, want to control the country. A recent edition of the party magazine showed a statue of St. Gellert — an 11th-century martyred bishop — holding a menorah instead of a cross. “Is this what you want?” it asked.
Pope Benedict's personal preacher Father Raniero Cantalamessa also had the Holocaust on the mind last week when he compared attacks on the church over the ongoing sex abuse scandal to the "collective violence" inflicted on Jews by the Nazis. A retired Italian bishop also reportedly blamed the scandal on "Zionists," though he has denied making the comments.
While it's certainly not fair to say sentiments like these are widespread, these incidents provide a disturbing contemporary backdrop to a day of historical commemoration.
JACEK BEDNARCZYK/AFP/Getty Images
LUEBBENAU, GERMANY - APRIL 09: Jutta Pudenz, an employee of German postal carrier Deutsche Post DHL, arrives to deliver mail from her falt-bottomed canoe in the narrow canals in the Spreewald forest on April 9, 2010 in Luebbenau, Germany. Pudenz has been delivering mail via the waterways for 20 years and is the only postwoman in Germany to deliver mail door to door by boat. The Spreewald forest is interlaced with canals that are still used by locals for delivering goods, ferrying tourists and even collecting garbage. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
A Greek man has taken umbrage over the use of his face on Swedish containers of Turkish yoghurt. The offended party is not interested in reconciliation, either: he has sued Lindahls, the dairy company that puts out the item, for almost $7 million.
The man only found out his moustachioed face featured on the containers of Turkisk Yoghurt made by Lindahls when a friend living in Stockholm told him.
Athanasios Varzanakos told Swedish Radio his friend "was annoyed and asked how it was possible" when informed.
Lindahls claims to have bought the image legitimately from a photo agency. Hopefully, this won't have too much impact on the ongoing rapprochement between Greek and Turkish Cyprus.
OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images
For anyone who just can't wait any longer for the premier of the next season of Mad Men, the next best thing might be following the Ukrainian political scene.
Not to be outdone by President Yanukovich, who told Yulia Tymoshenko during a February campaign event that she should either take responsibility for herself or "demonstrate her whims in the kitchen," last Friday Prime Minister Mykola Azorov declared that:
Some say our government is too large; others that there are no women.... There's no one to look at during cabinet sessions: they're all boring faces. With all respect to women, conducting reforms is not women's business."
At the very least, Yanukovich and Azorov are true to their word: there's not a single woman to be found among the government's cabinet ministers. I wonder what Alexandra Starr would have to say about this.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Greece's latest deficit-cutting measures may help the country escape its debt crisis, but higher taxes and wage cuts will be a hardship for many Greek citizens, who already are the most likely in Europe to report problems paying their bills.
Fully fifty-seven percent of Greeks answered that they are "Constantly struggling and have fallen behind with some/many bills." This number is twelve percent higher than the three runners-up, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. Furthermore, forty-three percent of Greeks claimed that though they had no problems paying bills in 2008, they had begun having problems in 2009 and expected them to continue in 2010 -- a number also twelve percent higher than the E.U. average of 31 percent.
It looks like this big, fat Greek economic collapse will last well into the future.
France was poised to become the first major economy to tax carbon emissions, but thanks to legal and political setbacks, it's not to be:
A tax would have to be introduced at a European level in order "not to harm the competitiveness of French companies," Francois Fillon was quoted as saying by several MPs of the governing UMP party who attended a meeting with him.[...]
Speaking after the UMP was badly beaten in regional elections seen as a punishment vote for Sarkozy, Fillon said the government's reform priorities were "growth, jobs, competitiveness and fighting deficits," the MPs told AFP.
Given the tricky logic of climate change regulations, in which no country wants to make painful cuts without assurances that other countries aren't gaining advantage, this is an international setback as well.
In the latest development in the Armenian genocide resolution row, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted at expelling thousands of Armenians from the country. The threat was made as a result of genocide resolutions progressing in the U.S. Congress and Swedish parliament.
About 100,000 undocumented Armenians live in Turkey (and another 70,000 legal residents), many performing menial work.
Obviously Erdogan's words aren't helpful (and would seem particularly crass given the issue), but they're nothing new. Aris Nalci, editor at Agos, a Turkish-Armenian weekly, downplayed the remarks:
We are not taking it as a serious threat.
Checking the scorecard, the impact of the committee vote is now a threat to the use of Incirlik Air base, a crucial link in the supply train to Iraq; damaging the peace process and rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia; and now a warning that tens of thousands of poor, migrant Armenians might get deported.
Does the foreign affairs committee still think it was worth it?
The State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report examines abuse and discrimination the world over, featuring China, Iran, and... Western Europe?
Europe is not exactly at the forefront of one's mind when thinking of places with poor human rights records. But creeping into European society are widespread and insidious anti-Muslim sentiments, says the report. These prejudices are increasingly visible across the Continent, with numerous cases last year highlighting the issue. The document puts it rather bluntly: "Discrimination against Muslims in Europe has been an increasing concern."
The biggest headline grabber was the Swiss ban of minaret construction, passed by a significant majority (57.5 percent in favor) in a popular referendum. (Notably, the ban was opposed by majorities in parliament and the Federal Council, but still won handily.) Compared to its bigger neighbors, Switzerland has a relatively tiny Muslim community, and there are only four minarets in the entire country -- making the ban mostly symbolic. But the message, another contribution to the growing trend of Swiss hostility towards Muslims, resonated. The report further stated,
Islamic organizations have complained that authorities in many cantons and municipalities discriminated against Muslims by refusing zoning approval to build mosques, minarets, or Islamic cemeteries.
Switzerland was hardly the only country the Report criticized. France's anti-headscarf laws were criticized, as was French President Nicolas Sarkozy's claim that burqas are "not welcome" in France. In the Netherlands, right-wing politician Geert Wilders is cited for frequently stoking anti-Muslimsentiments
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