In a new low for Muslim-baiting, a Swedish political attack ad features a burqa-clad mob robbing money from an old lady with a walker.
Obviously, this ad is a testament to growing European fears of Muslim immigration -- but it's also a product of the global recession. As a counter shows the rapidly declining state budget, the elderly Swedish lady is overtaken by a throng of Muslim women, who are wielding baby carriages. The commercial ends ominously with one outstretched hand reaching for a lever that says "Pensioner," and another reaching for a lever that says (what Google Translate tells me is the Swedish word for) "Immigration." The clear implication is that there won't be enough money for both.
There shouldn't be any doubt that a dismal economic climate has exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden. Sweden's far-right party secured 20 seats in the country's parliament in general elections over the weekend, the first time ever that it had won even a single seat.
No, not a multicultural spin-off of the beloved 1990s animated series, just the latest Islamaphobic backlash scandal.
Following medieval tradition, the stonemasons working on the renovation of St. Jean cathedral in Lyon, France decided to pay tribute to one of their own by styling a gargoyle after a Muslim mason named Ahmed Benzizine:
Stonemason Emmanuel Fourchet decided to carve "Ahmed" as a gargoyle -- a demonic medieval statue that hangs from a cathedral as both a form of rain gutter and an admonishment to the faithful -- in tribute to his friend.
The "God is Great" inscription underneath, in both French and Arabic, is a tribute to his colleague's faith, and was not meant as a slight to Christian worshippers who still use St Jean eight centures after it was built.
"I'm a Frenchman and a practising Muslim and I've always worked on historic monuments. I could work on mosques or synagogues as well," Benzizine told AFP after a hardline website attempted to stir controversy....
While Ahmed has adorned the Gothic masterpiece since summer without raising eyebrows, it was attacked by "Jeunesse Identitaire Lyonnais", a right-wing group which defends the region's traditional "ethnic and cultural identity".
"While in many Muslim countries Christianity is forbidden and Christians persecuted, in Lyon Muslims take over our churches at their leisure with the complicity of Catholic authorities," the group complained on its website.
Unless Ahmed the Gargoyle is coming to life at night and eating all the communion wafers or something, this seems pretty harmless to me.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
A history teacher has been suspended in France for spending "too much" class time on teaching the Holocaust.
Here's a classic example of where France goes wrong. A July report condemned Catherine Pederzoli for "lacking distance, neutrality and secularism" and that by spending so much time on the Holocaust she was "brainwashing" her students.
For the past fifteen years, Pederzoli has organized annual trips for students to death camps in Poland and the Czech Republic. The number of students she was allowed to take had been cut in half, prompting her students to hold a protest when French Minister of Education Luc Chatel visited the school. Pederzoli was accused of inciting the protests.
Here's how ridiculous the report was:
The ministry's report cites that in meeting with investigators, the teacher used the word "Holocaust" 14 times while using the more neutral term "massacre" only twice.
Seriously? She's brainwashing her students because she used an internationally recognized term for the heinous crimes committed against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other "undesirables" by Nazi Germany? It's hard to imagine a more preposterous condemnation.
France's republican tradition means that it doesn't officially recognize differences between demographic groups, and that secularism is the overriding state virtue. But that deliberate non-recognition --"I can't see you!" -- itself leads directly to policies that are often used, intentionally or not, in an anti-Semitic or Islamophobic manner.
A far-right party in Austria has sparked outrage by launching an online video game which allows players to shoot down minarets and muezzins calling for prayer.
The game's name, "Moschee Baba," translates to the not particularly clever "Bye Bye Mosque." It was created by the infamous Austian Freedom Party to promote the candidacy of Gerhard Kurzmann, running in local elections in Styria. Unsurprisingly, there aren't even any "mosques with minarets" in Styria, and there are only four in the entire country.
Freedom Party Secretary Herbert Kickl defended the game by saying that the game didn't even involve shooting, but "the pushing of a stop-button to halt a bad political decision." Yeah, a stop button that just so happens to appear in the middle of an circle closely resembling a crosshair.
(Apparently the end sequence translates to "Game Over. Styria is now full of minarets and mosques!" which reminds me at least of the infamous "All your base are belong to us" meme.)
In an inspired bit of YouTube surfing, Gawker has assembled a compilation of military recruitment commercials from around the world. There are a few clunkers -- three minutes is an awful long time to watch a Russian paratrooper sort of rapping in front of an obstacle course -- and I have my doubts that this Japanese ad is not an elaborate sophomoric hoax, but on the whole they make for pretty fascinating viewing.
Watching these as an American, the most immediately noticeable thing is how little time most of the ads spend overtly appealing to patriotism. There's Estonia, which does it cheekily, and Lebanon, which does it with a slow-motion sentimentality that would be cloying under other circumstances but is actually quite poignant in the context of a country that is eternally trying to keep things together. France and India, meanwhile, both hearken back to the U.S. military ads of the pre-9/11 era, in which we mostly see the life-advancing stuff that enlistment is supposed to get you, with a minimum of actual warfighting. (A career in the Indian army evidently prepares you for a lifetime of golfing and competitive diving.)
The Ukrainian army opts for an admirably straightforward "you'll get girls" approach. Singapore features a naval vessel transforming into a giant robot, presumably developed to contain the same giant lava monsters that have long plagued the U.S. Marines. Britain's jarring entry -- which a student of post-colonialism would have a field day with -- looks like it was directed by Fernando Meirelles. (This kind of "I dare you" approach to recruiting must work in the U.K. -- back in the '90s, when the U.S. Army was mostly promoting itself as a way to pay for college, the Brits ran magazine ads showing a Royal Marine eating worms as part of a survival training course.)
But the real winner here, I think, is Sweden, which is promoting military service to young women as a means of avoiding working as an au pair for awful Americans:
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
Looking for a new hobby? You may want to give bog snorkeling a try.
The latest out of Wales is that a bog snorkeler may have set a new world record time for the sport by more than eight seconds. The Telegraph reports that race participants "must swim two lengths of a 60 yard muddy, water-filled trench using flippers but no recognized swimming strokes."
While the event was won by a Welshman, competitors came from as far away as Australian and Poland to compete. The winning time was one minute and 30.06 seconds.
If bog snorkeling alone isn't enough for you, why not try the bog snorkeling triathlon? Also set in Wales, the triathlon consists of a 7.5-mile run, two lengths of the bog swim, and 19 miles of cycling. Last year, a Brit won the race in a record two hours, 21 minutes, and five seconds.
Gideon Rachman blogs a story we missed a few weeks ago about new posthumous against Austrian far-right leader Jorg Haider, who was killed in a car crash in 2008:
The weekly, Falter, said it had obtained the diary of Walter Meischberger, a former member of Haider's Freedom Party. Falter is publishing what it describes as excerpts of the diary that mention an alleged transfer of euro45 million by the Libyan leader in connection with an unnamed Haider confidant. According to Falter, the diary also claims that others from Freedom Party circles visiting Iraq returned home with millions of euros. It claims that further millions allegedly came from a Swiss account belonging to the Iraqi leader's family. Falter says Meischberger had secondhand knowledge of the alleged transfers.
Falter did not provide details about where it obtained the purported diary. A spokesman for the Vienna public prosecutor's office, Thomas Vecsey, confirmed that authorities had seized the diary but declined to comment on its author or contents, saying it was under investigation.
Since his death, we've been learning a lot of new things about Haider, who set the stage for a new wave of far-right European politicians who have found mainstream success in recent years but shocked the world by praising Nazi policies while he was governor of Carinthia -- his relatively open but undiscussed homosexuality for instance.
Haider's longtime friendship with Qaddafi is already well known, as is the fact that he met with Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war. But I would still have to imagine that it would be pretty embarrassing for the Freedom Party, which is currently calling for a ban on headscarves and minarets, to have received funding from two of the Islamic world's most notorious dictators.
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Even as President Barack Obama brought the debate over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque" to the national level last weekend, Muslim residents of a very different city were launching their own version of the Cordoba initiative. In the real Cordoba:
Muslims in Spain are campaigning to be allowed to worship alongside Christians in Cordoba Cathedral -- formerly the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
Today, at the original Cordoba mosque in Spain, there is no call to prayer, only the ringing of church bells. That's because the former mosque is now a working Catholic cathedral, performing a daily mass.
Until the city was reconquered by Christian armies in the 13th century, Cordoba was a key symbol of Spanish Muslim culture. The Mosque of Cordoba, in particular, drew countless worshippers to the region. If the activists get their way, Cordoba's historical reputation may soon be restored.
kojotomoto / Flickr.com
When China hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, its government tried to rein in citizens' bad habits like spitting. Britain is taking a different tack in the run-up to London 2012 with a guide teaching Britons some helpful cultural stereotypes. Some gems include:
- A smiling Japanese person is not necessarily happy.
- Be careful how you pour wine for an Argentinian.
- Avoid winking at someone from Hong Kong.
- Remember Arabs are not used to being told what to do.
- Do not be alarmed if South Africans announce that they were held up by robots.
- Don't ask a Brazilian personal questions.
- When meeting Mexicans it is best not to discuss poverty, illegal aliens, earthquakes or their 1845-6 war with America.
- Never call a Canadian an American.
And how do foreigners see Britons?
Research shows foreign visitors often find Britain's mix of cutting-edge modernity and rich cultural heritage ‘'fascinating'' and ‘'exciting.'' They see British people as ‘'honest,'' ‘'funny,' ‘'kind'' and ‘'efficient'' but in some cases they wish we offered a more exuberant welcome.
You can see the full list (plus handy descriptions) at VisitBritain, the national tourism agency.
(h/t The Awl)
Earlier today in Ankara, David Cameron was eager to display a facility with the Turkish language: Tabii ki Tuerkiye - "of course, it's Turkey," in English - was the refrain of a speech advocating Turkey's admittance to the EU. Judging from his argument though, Cameron would have benefitted from a better acquaintance with the Latin phrase non sequitur, or the colloquial Americanism straw man.
There are many good reasons that Turkey should be an EU member state. This is not one of them:
When I think about what Turkey has done to defend Europe as a NATO ally and what Turkey is doing today in Afghanistan alongside our European allies it makes me angry that your progress towards EU Membership can be frustrated in the way it has been. My view is clear. I believe it's just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent."
Whatever this excerpt says about Cameron's personal integrity, it doesn't have much purchase as a political argument. NATO and the EU are two entirely separate entities, with different histories, different mandates and overlapping, but different, membership rolls. Participation in the one doesn't require, nor imply, participation in the other; membership in NATO is supposed to be its own reward. Or is Cameron suggesting that the United States line up alongside Turkey for EU accession, followed shortly thereafter by Albania?
Then there's Cameron's tidy summary of the case against Turkey. There are apparently three groups of European Turkey-skeptics: the protectionist (who see Turkey as "an economic threat"), the polarized (who are in thrall to a vision of a "clash of civilizations"), and the prejudiced (who "willfully misunderstand Islam"). Cameron proceeds to show just how mistaken those troglodytes are.
But does Cameron really think the reasons of the EU states holding up Turkish accession fall under his categories? France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel are both on the record resisting Turkish entry. Which are they: the polarized? Or is it the prejudiced? Or, perchance, might they be motivated by national interest? (Wait: Might the U.K. itself be motivated by national interest?)
There's no doubt that including Turkey would mean changes for the EU. Those changes may be for the better - from increased soft power, to a more dynamic internal market - but it's only prudent for each country to evaluate those changes on its own. France is right to wonder whether accepting Turkey into the club would put an end to its dream of a deepened EU foreign policy, much less its annual bounty of EU agriculture subsidies. Demographic trends being what they are, Germans should be forgiven for clinging to the EU voting rights commensurate with their status as Europe's most populous country. They'd also be deluded not to consider the impact of potential Turkish migration to German cities with large numbers of Turkish immigrants.
Name-calling accomplishes little in such a fraught enterprise. And making it all seem obvious and uncomplicated is only condescending.
The Turkish surely know this. Perhaps Cameron was calculating that earning good graces in Ankara was worth risking scorn in Berlin and Paris. But I wonder whether all he's done is lose credibility all around.
Or, most frightening of all, maybe he actually believes this argument accurately describes European institutions and European concerns. Even if Cameron skipped his rhetoric classes at Eton and Oxford, here's hoping he didn't sleep through all the rest.
Last night, Greece's parliament approved a controversial pension reform plan which would raise the retirement age to 65 -- many Greeks currently retire around 50 -- reduce payouts, and make it easier for companies to fire workers. Just how upset are Greek workers about this?
“Nobody expected this — this is worse than the occupation under the Germans,” said Nikos Stathas, 60, a plumber who is just retiring now. He says he has just got his pension, but he is worried about his children and grandchildren. “This will demolish their retirement,” he added.
About 300,000 people died of starvation in Athens alone, during the German occupation, but that was nothing compared to forcing future generations of Greek workers to retire at the same age as the rest of the developed world.
Hyperbole aside, cuts like these are always painful for any government to make, and it's a particular irony that they're being made by Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou. It was his father Andreas Papandreou, who, as prime minister during the 1980s, largely established the Greek benefits system that his son is now dismantling.
In the current print issue of FP, I write about some new research suggesting that in post-Communist Eastern Europe, Socialist government have been more likely to enact spending cuts and privatize assets than their right-wing rivals. In the response to the financial crisis, we've seen Socialist governments in both Eastern European countries like Hungary and Western European countries like Spain pushing through dramatic spending cuts and labor reforms to avert crisis.
I suspect this has less to do with an ideological switch -- the conservative French and British governments are pushing austerity as well -- than with mainstream European parties largely reaching a concensus on the best way to respond to the crisis. The old joke about the U.S. foreign policy debate is that it's a (American) football game played between the 40-yard lines. European economic policy is starting to look more like halfcourt basketball -- both teams trying to get more points by doing the same thing.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
If you think a day in the life of a British school kid is all about matching knee socks, "smart" ties, and a good dose of old-fashioned law and order (just think Professor McGonogall and those no-nonsense glasses) -- think again. Last year alone, 2,230 students were "permanently excluded" from school (a punishment that sounds worthy of Azkaban) for physically assaulting their teachers or classmates. In light of these statistics -- and increasing grumbling from the bruised and battered professors themselves -- schools minister Nick Gibb has proposed a four point plan to make British classrooms the decorous and disciplined places they once were (at least in our imaginations).
The proposal includes measures that would permit more knuckle-rapping and ruler-wielding in schools: the new standards would "encourag[e] teachers to make greater use of physical force to ‘maintain good order.'" As British law currently stands, there's nothing stopping fed-up teachers from (forcefully) putting know-it-alls back in line, "provided pupils are not injured." But, according to Gibb, teachers have grown wary of exercising their well-enshrined right to move beyond time-outs, fearful of lawsuits or even, as the harrowing saga of Peter Harvey persistently reminds them, the possibility of a life behind bars. (Harvey, on trial for lobbing a dumbbell at a student's head while shouting "die, die, die," was ultimately acquitted -- but not before prompting tirades from fellow teachers about the injustices of not being able to smack those ungrateful little brats.)
Gibb contends that the newly proposed standards -- which would also provide greater leeway to search students and grant accused teachers anonymity when under investigation -- will help to erode this atmosphere of fear by "removing red tape so that teachers can ensure discipline in the classroom and promote good behaviour." By his account, it's all just one big misunderstanding: students simply became too "aware of their rights." Once that confusion gets cleared up, it's only a matter of time before Snape-for-Principal posters start popping up....
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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.
LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images
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.
NIGEL TREBLIN/AFP/Getty Images
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."
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
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.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
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.
Mark Renders/Getty Images
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