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1.11.2011

Gun Control in America: an almost Taboo Subject in spite of Rep. Giffords Tragic Shooting!

National Rifle AssociationImage via Wikipedia

Three days after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Dem) was shot, and six innocent bystanders along with her, including a Federal judge and a 9 year old girl, the reactions in America have all been about the "terrible" political climate that has supposedly promoted this kind of violence.

A climate in which Ms. Palin played no small role with her map of 20 House politicians adverse to the Tea Party and that needed to be targetted - the map, published on her Facebook page, unfortunately bearing crosshairs like gun sights.

Does it all come down to a climate of hate and one unbalanced young man?

May be.

What is absolutely astounding is that virtually no one in the media is raising the issue of gun control. With one notable exception: New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins  Click the link and read it: a very courageous bid for more gun control. You'll see however that even Ms. Collins is careful about where she treads. She'd like to see Glocks banned - because they're not for hunting or self-defense: they're deadly weapons for straight out killing and nothing else - . But there's not a word about banning regular pistols... True, there are a few lone voices in the blogosphere, especially in politico.com. And maybe one House member is ready to introduce some new gun legislation. Let's see how serious Capitol Hill is about gun control... The fact remains that the NRA remains the strongest lobby in the land and no one dares stand up to it.

Carrying a gun around remains one fundamental, untouchable right of every American citizen worth his salt.

So, in future, expect many more political killings with lots of Glock-murdered innocent bystanders...And forget all that self-righteous talk about a "climate of hate": that's just icing on the cake.
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1.09.2011

Violence in America: Why its Political Class Bears the Brunt

Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic nominee and gen...Image via Wikipedia
Everything in the USA tends to be bigger than elsewhere in the developed world, from skyscrapers to violence. The recent shooting in Arizona of  Democrat Rep, Gabrielle Giffords, that left her clinging to life - the bullet travelled through her brain - and killed six people, including a child (9 years old) and a Federal judge, is a case in point.

The blogosphere and the media immediately went a-twitter: this was so much better than Wikileaks! Of course, Arizona is a state awash with anti-immigrant and anti-government passions, so assigning the blame to the political right was a no-brainer. The fact that she's a pretty, 40 year-old woman, wife of an astronaut and Navy captain, added to the unholy glitter of the news.

Politicians jumped on the bandwagon of comments: starting with the local county sherif (a Democrat) raging about "the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country", a direct result, as he saw it, of Republican Tea Party rants against the government, all the way to President Obama who immediately condemned the shooting and said "we're going to get to the bottom of this and we're going to get through with this".

The bottom seems to be rather shallow: for the moment, the culprit, already arrested, is an unbalanced young man who'd been putting threatening messages on YouTube. But he might have had an accomplice and things could get more complicated. Local law enforcement authoricities believe Giffords was specifically targetted.

Reactions in the political world in Washington have been fairly uniform. Beyond expressions of sorrow, Democrats have fairly uniformly pointed the finger to "inflammatory rethoric that incites political violence". Republicans have vigorously denied the accusation but some among them have admitted that it amounts to a "cautionary tale".

Cautionaury? Indeed! We're back to the usual formula: violence + politics= social unrest. By the way, that's a formula you can read both ways: from left to right and from right to left. Definitely America is going through a very, very difficult period. The Great Recession is hardly over, unemployment has given no sign of improvement for the last 19 months. Even the news that unemployment went from 9.8% to 9.4% last month didn't bring smiles on anyone's lips, since it was clearly not near enough to solve the problem. Economists and various other pundits had hoped for the creation of 200,000 new jobs when in fact (depending on how you crunch the statistics) probably some 50,000 were created - way below what's needed just to mop up the people who've been laid off in the past 6 months. And let's not talk about the chances of the thousands of new, young college graduates out there, trying to land their first job...

From our standpoint in Europe, it is always surprising to see how violent America gets. One can sympathize with the glum climate in the US - things are not any better on this side of the Atlantic: indeed, on the unemployment front, especially in Southern Europe, they are much worse. Unemployment can reach 40, even 50 percent among certain segments of the population, particularly the young. And the kind of job on offer, mostly in services (like for example, call centres or washing dishes) are definite downers, especially for the hopeful young with a university degree.

But political violence in Europe tends to be expressed in street protests and near-riots, burning cars and breaking up shop windows, rather than political killings like in the US.We all remember the ghastly and spectacular shooting of President Kennedy in 1963. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that only Democrats get shot. President Reagan was also subject to attack. It's just that America is a trigger-happy country, all the more so that it is the only democracy in the world with such liberal gun laws.

How about considering a tightening of gun laws? I'd love to know how my American readers feel about this. That issue so far, in the first hours and days following the shooting, remarkably, has hardly come up, either in official comments, the media or the blogosphere. With a rare exception, like Keith Olbermann who aired a special session on TV to condemn "violence in democracy" and called on Americans to "put their guns down". While a highly commendable stand, it is still clearly rethorical. What is needed is a call to legislative action to curb the reach of the gun laws. If anyone has made that call, I haven't seen it. Please tell me I'm wrong and that the issue IS coming up!

Interestingly enough, Gabrielle Giffords, like most Americans, was not in favour of cutting back on the gun laws. For some unfathomable reason, Americans see toting a gun around as part of their fundamental citizen rights. If she ever recovers from her wounds and makes it back in political life (something I fervently wish for her sake), I wonder how she'll feel about her country's gun laws...
 
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1.07.2011

Christians Crucified Everywhere in the Muslim World...Except in Turkey!

Logo Muslim BrotherhoodLogo Muslim BrotherhoodImage via Wikipedia

A powerful bomb exploded in front of a Christian Coptic Church in Egypt, killing 21 and wounding nearly 100 of the faithful who were attending New Year's mass. When, on the following day, the Pope in Rome called for world leaders to protect Christians, he immediately drew criticism from the Great Imam of Egypt. The Pope's call, he said, was tantamout to interference in internal Egyptian affairs...

Internal affairs? Since when killing religious minorities is an "internal affair"? Of course, killing people from other faiths has been a regular activity in the Middle East since earliest times - starting with the Hashashin sect in the 11th and 12th century, that fought other Muslims for political power and Christians for religious reasons.

In case you're wondering why all this hatred was exploding back then... remember? That was the time of the first Crusade. Christ's teaching of tolerance and forgiveness had already been forgotten by Christians then, and now it is ignored by everybody!

In other words, religion and politics was intimately meshed in the Middle East back then, and it still is today, a thousand years later. So, indeed, one may speak of "internal affairs" insofar as the killings are political.

Who's behind these killings? The biggest fundamentalist group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has condemned the bombing. So the mostly likely culprit is, as always, Al Qaeda. The Hashashins pale by comparison. We all remember the ruthless killing of Christians in Baghdad on 31 October 2010. The virtual cancellation of Christian observances in Iraq has been an immediate result. More than 50 innocent lives were sacrificed to the altar of Religious Hatred - undoubtedly one of the strongest and deadliest of human emotions.

More and more Christians are fleeing Muslim countries. Because it's not just Iraq that is "bleeding" Christians, but also Pakistan and even India. Things are getting really bad of late in Pakistan, with the assassination of Mr. Taseer, Punjab's governor, by one of his bodyguards while the others looked on without lifting a finger (in fact four of them are in custody in addition to the murderer). Here was a man with liberal ideas, in favour of pardoning a Christian woman condemned to death under Pakistan's infamous "blasphemy law". He was killed by a religious fanatic precisely because he showed religious tolerance. His funeral was shunned by top Pakistani politicians, including President Zardari who was Taseer's friend. And of course, Muslim leaders all over Pakistan (who are all supporting the blasphemy law) have told their followers not to attend the funeral nor pray for Mr. Taseer. Religious fury knows no bounds...

And, alas, it is not certain that Christian refugees in the West can fully escape Al Qaeda. There have been reports that Al Qaeda has made a list of Christian Copts they want to eliminate: 200 in Canada and 15 in Austria and in other countries too: Germany, the Netherlands... What is remarkable is that some people on this list are Copts who have become Canadian or Austrian citizens and have left Egypt many decades ago! That's how far religious hatred will go...

So what about human rights? Where does the humanitarian community stand on this? Well...at least, it always makes the right sounds. Following the killing in Egypt, President Obama has condemned it as a "heinous and barbaric act" and asked that the culprits be brought to justice. The Pope has called for all religious leaders in the world to meet together at Assisi next October in a "summit to discuss how they can promote "world peace"  - a repeat of the event Pope John Paul II held 25 years ago (with unfortunately, precious little results as the current outburst in religious violence seems to indicate). The press on both sides of the Atlantic, from the New York Times to La Stampa in Italy have loudly and rightfully condemned it and mused on about how religious minorities are increasingly "pushed out" and the Muslim world is becoming "homogenized". That's a nice way of saying that religious intolerance is exploding...

Against this sombre backdrop of religious violence, Turkey stands out as a haven of tolerance. On Monday 3 January, There was an official visit to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul by the number two man in the Erdogan government, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Mr. Arinc’s visit reportedly coincided with government promises to consider reopening an Orthodox seminary and returning properties confiscated by the state to Christian and Jewish minorities. Consider that no Turkish government official had ever paid such a visit in the past five decades, even when the government was in the hands of a secular party. Yet Mr. Erdogan is notoriously known as a non-secular, Muslim leader with a wife who always keeps a head scarf.  

This heralds a sea change in that big country on the doorstep of Europe (77 million people), a country with a huge Muslim majority (97% of the population) in spite of its Ata-Turk induced secular tendencies. But I believe Ata-Turk, the father of the Turkish Republic established in 1923, may have had less to do with this than older memories - those of the Ottoman Empire that was famously tolerant of the religious minorities within its borders, when the Empire was one of the biggest in the world, covering three continents. Indeed, Turkey seems to follow in the footsteps of this glorious past in its expanding presence in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, and more precisely in Northern Iraq where it has established good commercial relations with the local Kurds. Of the 700 foreign businesses established there, more than half are Turkish...And the Turks are busy building roads to Iraq and opening Turkish schools.

Yes, there does seem to be a silver lining on the horizon, and, surprisingly, it is Turkish!  



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12.30.2010

WikiLeaks Drip, Drip, Drip...For How Long?

Julian AssangeJulian Assange Image by Poster Boy NYC via Flickr
WikiLeaks is like a dripping faucet on the international political scene, creating puddles and craters everwhere, much to the dismay of most politicians and the glee of a few, like Putin. He'd like to see Mr. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, get the Nobel Prize! And the French newspaper Le Monde has named him Man of the Year.

That's pushing it a bit, and it doesn't recognize the damage done - and the numerous people who are losing their job or seeing their career collapse. There is no question that WikiLeaks should have redacted names more carefully. Most unprofessional. There is a rising tide against Assange and he knows it. The US government is trying to build up a case against him and they may get him yet.


There's also been an over-reaction in the financial world - from PayPal to Switzerland - closing down the avenues to support Assange in his self-appointed "crusade". On the other hand, the publishing industry, eager to publish his memoirs, thinks differently. Actually, there'll always be somebody who thinks differently and who'll support Assange. There are even people in America supporting Bradley Manning, the US Army soldier who copied the diplomatic cables, passed them on to Assange and got arrested (so far with $ 100,000 for his legal expenses).

Assange's first counter move has been to sell his memoirs (quite a coup considering he's only 39) for the remarkable sum of $1.3 million or 1.5 million (it's not clear how much, but quite a lot anyway) to, inter aliaAlfred A. Knopf, the American publisher. The memoirs are set to come out in March 2011. Before they do, one of his former colleagues, Daniel Domscheit-Berg is coming out with his own version of what it's like to work at WikiLeaks. Since he's left WikiLeaks and is disenchanted with Assange, we're in for some interesting "memoirs" next year...

Incidentally, what Assange got is the kind of advance any debut writer would dream of! To think that the publishing industry, pretexting the onslought of e-readers and digital books, speaks of reducing advances to all writers, especially start-ups. Of course, Assange is no start-up and he's built for himself quite a "platform" - that's the publishing industry jargon for a person's following, guaranteeing that his book will be sold. And he's going to need the money to defend himself once the Justice Department gets ready to attack.

That they will attack is understandable: the biggest victims are the Americans. Nobody in his right mind will ever want to talk again to an American diplomat, and that diffidence around the world is likely to last a very long time...

How long? Probably a generation. Take note Mrs. Clinton!

What is truly astounding is how silly the State Department - Foggy Bottom as American diplomats affectionately call it - has been over the matter of protecting the privacy of its diplomatic communications. To entrust all their cables to Pentagon protection is surprising - since when do diplomats trust the military? Worse, to send confidential stuff over the Internet when everybody knows that it's next to impossible to keep things secret out there, in the ether, is an astonishing display of ingenuity. Leaks just had to happen sooner or later, WikiLeaks notwithstanding.

In the past, diplomats used to entrust their confidential reports to the good old diplomatic pouch that travelled back to the capital with one or two bodyguards to ensure safety. Over the centuries, that's what diplomats have always done. In this day and age of media, technology and instant news around the world, there is NO single diplomatic communication that needs to be sent over in "real time".There's no rush, and why should there be?

Think of the nature of diplomatic work. Diplomatic reports are the careful distillation of what diplomats learn of a situation over time, from local journalists, politicians and businessmen, in short all kinds of people they meet in the course of their diplomatic activities (read: round of national day receptions, official celebrations, dinner parties with the locals etc). A diplomatic report is rarely if ever "front-line news": that's the job of reporters working for Reuters, AP and the like. What a good diplomatic report adds to the news that you and I read is the man's experience of the local situation and his knowledge of international relations. That's the diplomat's comparative advantage with respect to reporters and journalists. An ambassador is a man, with the help of his team (from young attachés to counsellors and ministers), who can ponder the situation, distinguish between the good, the bad and the irrelevant and give his government a balanced, well thought-out view that helps in shaping foreign policy.

So there's absolutely no need to cable. Most reports could be sent via the diplomatic pouch and reach the State Department in 12 hours from just about anywhere in the world. For the few urgent communications, there's always the telephone with a good encrypted programme to discourage unwanted listeners...

But even if American diplomacy returns to using well-tried tools like the diplomatic pouch, it's obviously too late and the damage is done. From now on, a new dimension is added to World News: the WikiLeaked article. How does it differ from an Op Ed piece? Go to the WikiLeaks site, you'll see how it differs. There is a telling line right up front which reveals how the WikiLeaks people view their mission:
"We are of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and institutions. We aim for maximum political impact."
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12.22.2010

The Art of Giving in this Holiday Season

Roundel of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
For everyone on the face of this earth, the end of the year is a blessed time for giving  - whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Budhist, a Jew, a Hinduist, an atheist or whatever else you call yourself.

This is a time for thinking of others, especially the poor, the emarginated, the sick and the dying.

We are all rushing to buy presents for family and friends - why not set aside a little something for someone whose only claim on you is that she or he belongs to the human race but was not born lucky the way you were...

It is heartwarming to see how the media and the blogosphere have woken up to the need to give.

In one instance, Christians and atheists, quickly joined by Muslims, have engaged online in what they call the "overall battle for goodness" and in a few days had raised some $50,000 for a hospital (see the article below).  Then Nicholas Kristof, a columnist on the New York Times, lists eleven worthy American charities and I urge you to look it up (click here for his article The Gifts of Hope). Popular bloggers such as Nathan Bransford and First Person Irregular have jumped in offering Heifer International one dollar for every comment they receive on their blog, thus increasing traffic on their site for a good cause.

I have never done this before but I'd like to do the same: for every comment I'll receive for this post on my blog, I'll offer one Euro to the Order of Malta. Please join me in offering support to this worthwhile humanitarian organization, one of the oldest in the world: imagine, it has been in operation for over 900 years!

Today it can count on the services of some 12,000 members (knights and dames), another 11,000 paid personnel (mainly doctors and nurses) and about 80,000 volunteers spread in dozens of countries. The Order's humanitarian work cuts across all religions and puts the sick and the needy before every political, ideological and religious consideration.

Its main job is medical assistance and it runs dozens of hospitals and dispensaries across the world, many in Africa, and has always operated leprosies (in India). It has some special programmes like assisting children bon from mothers affected by AIDS, a particularly complex and demanding type of assistance as both mother and child require to be looked after for several years (before birth and two years afterwards). It also looks after the elderly and the poor in developed countries (remember, in Europe alone, there are some 50 million people living below the poverty line).  But, in spite of the dedication of its members, the Order is always in need of additional funds: the demands of the sick and the poor are, alas, never ending...

One of the most emblematic of its charities is the maternity hospital in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, where all the children are born without regard to whether they are of Christian, Muslim or Jewish parents. Since 1990, when the Order of Malta reopened the hospital (it had been shut due to violence), some 50,000 births have taken place there (the 50,000th one, a baby girl named Aicha, on October 18), without ever having a mother dying in childbirth - something of a miracle! But they need support to pay for equipment and help, so all contributions are welcome! Here is the address to make payments: 
    Bank account : Holy Family Hospital
    Account No. 3890000/0
    Bank of Palestine PLC  PO Box 765 Bethlehem West Bank via Israel
    Swift Code: PALSPS 22
    Bank No. 89/BANKBRANCH No. 450

The Order of Malta, with its relief agency Malteser International, is also engaged in emergency assistance around the world and is present in every crisis with its doctors and nurses - most recently in Haiti where it was one of the first on the scene. Click here for its activity report for 2010.

Why does the Order work so well? Simple: it is almost always there with its own medical facilities BEFORE
the disaster hits. Indeed, this continous world-wide presence is a plus in making the Order's relief efforts particularly effective. And the Order will stay on after the worst of the crisis is over, as needed, to cater to additional needs as communities recover - for example providing them with agricultural tools to work the fields or digging the wells needed for clean water. For contributions, please click the following Malteser International link and you will find a form making it easy to pay in.



Please contribute yourself or, if its easier for you, make comments on this blog and I'll be as good as my word!

I'll take a few days off to celebrate the Holidays with my family and let me wish the same for you, my dear readers, for those of you who are not Christians: a Happy Holiday and for the others: Merry Christmas!





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12.21.2010

2010: the Year Democracy is on its Way Out?

_DSC0660Down with the poor! Image by Stephen Kosloff via Flickr
We are nearing year end and the time to take stock of what has happened in 2010. A tough year with austerity programmes and belt-tightening promised everywhere!

Some newspapers have already started. For its "Person of the Year", Time Magazine has decided to go digital and after  reportedly discarding Julian Assange, responsible for the Wikileaks mess, it has gone for a safer choice: Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. Quite frankly, I would not have chosen either, but I suppose Zuckerberg makes sense given the incredible success of The Social Network movie. This said, I think that Mr. Zuckerberg should start to worry: the implication of the Time selection is that he's fast becoming a "Man of the Past" (at least starting next year!). Facebook indeed has changed lately - much more publicity on it than before, leaving little space for the facebookers on their walls. And I'm not sure that many people appreciate having "their" social network highjacked by business...

I don't know what 2010 major events the media is going to go for (and the year isn't quite finished yet) but  - I'll stick my head out! - what really struck me are the repeated beatings Democracy has taken. Yes, I know you were expecting me to mention the sovereign debt crisis, the bailouts of Ireland and Greece and the threats to the Euro. There is that too, but the retreat of democracy is fundamental and visible everywhere! Think of it. In what developing country is democracy on the rise? When I say democracy I mean it in its broadest sense: government for the people and by the people. There are all sorts of democracies, some forms are better and more effective than others, but let's not quibble about it.

Just look at what happened after the recent elections that took place in the Ivory Coast: the president who's been in power for the past ten years, Laurent Gbagbo has no intentions of bowing to election results and letting his rival, Alassane Ouattara, take over. France and the United Nations' support for Mr. Ouattara notwithstanding. And the stale mate is on going, giving no signs of resolving itself, except probably at the expense of the United Nations and France and/or at the cost of a civil war. And Haiti? After protests in the streets, they're recounting the votes and we'll see what happens - not much good I'm afraid. Especially if you consider that the best liked candidate was - I mean is - a singer. What does he know about running a country? But of course, ever since Reagan and Berlusconi came into power, singers and actors are regarded as perfectly capable politicians and I should shut up and keep my doubts to myself. And Burma with its elections perennially rigged by the military? And Egypt with the Eternal Mubarak looking more and more like a Pharaoh? And Venezuela in the hands of wily Hugo Chavez?And Belarus in the hands of Lukashenko, the man who has never lost an election in 16 years and has just had 600 persons in the opposition arrested?

Perhaps not all is bleak and there are reports that Kirghystan may be moving towards a more democratic government, but for one Central Asian nation that has moved, the other four haven't.

And what about Iraq and Afghanistan, the countries where the United States has supposedly brought democracy? Afghanistan, awash in corruption, is a lost cause but even Iraq is not doing much better: we're still waiting for a government to be formed. We're holding our breath but the trouble is, we've been holding it now for ten months and I'm suffocating!

I'm sure there are more countries of the kind that I can't remember now, and please make comments and add them to the list! And of course I'm not mentioning the countries that do not try to be democracies like China, Cuba, Vietnam or North Korea. I'm not mentioning either the countries where corruption has become so widespread that the workings of democracy are threatened like India (the recent telecommunications scandal).

Actually there are lots of things I'm not mentioning: like the countries where democracy is falling in the hands of Big Government (Russia) or  Big Money (The United States). In the US, the power of the lobbies and the media in the hands of billionaires (starting with Rupert Murdoch) has managed to reverse in two years the results of the elections that brought Obama to the presidency (I'm referring to the mid-term elections here). The Republicans, and especially the Tea party, are determined to make sure that the poor and the emarginated  remain out in the cold, unattended by social security.

But it's not just democracy in the United States that is creaking, it's showing signs of fatigue in the United Kingdom too, the very the cradle of democracy! For a short moment after the elections this spring, it looked like the UK had managed to express a third party and was moving closer to a more balanced government - not always completely to the right (Tory) or the left (Labour) as in the past. But no, it didn't work out that way: contrary to his campaign claims, Clegg clung to Cameron (try to say that fast: it's a real tongue twister!) and whatever was left of the Welfare State is being dismantled, starting with education. The poor be damned (and the middle classes too)!

All this makes one wonder whether democracy is a realistic model of government, given human nature... 

Yes, 2011 promises to be a very cold year (notwithstanding Climate Warming)...

And before I forget, Happy New Year!

Post-scriptum: Good news: after 9 months, a new Iraqi government is seated in... For how long? How stable? Let's hope for the best...
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12.18.2010

Berlusconi and Italy: What the Media doesn't Tell You!

Silvio BerlusconiBerlusconi in a black shirt Image via Wikipedia

In Italy, December 14 was a crucial day for Berlusconi, the head of the Italian government and of the PDL  (Polo delle Libertà - a gathering of central rightist parties). He survived motions of no confidence in both houses of Parliament by the skin of his teeth: 314 vs. 311 in the lower house: that's just 3 votes - not enough to govern.

What does it mean? That Berlusconi, who started his meteoric career back in 1992 is on his way out? He's 74 years old, and for a lot of people, it's about time he went.

It's a little more complicated than that. As he is probably the politician most hated by the foreign media, I think it might be interesting to share with you what I know of the situation since I live in Italy and talk about it to all sorts of Italians.

The picture every English language paper gives of the Italian political situation is highly simplified and often biased, starting with the Economist. Which, to some extent, is a little bizarre considering that Berlusconi is a conservative businessman (he's a media mogul and a direct rival of Murdoch in Italy: it's an on-going fight between Berlusconi's Mediaset and Murdoch's Sky). He should fit into the Economist's main audience (all business) yet he doesn't. The mystery is explained once you know that the Economist's main source of information in Italy are local journalists working for the notorious leftist paper La Repubblica.

What happened after the vote? Papers and the TV made a lot of the violence that broke out in the streets of Rome with cars burning on Piazza del Popolo etc. People spoke of the worst riots in 30 years, recalling the "anni di piombo" (the lead years): the 1970s when the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades. Actually it wasn't like that at all. Ok, it was spectacular but of no real political importance. Order was restored in a few hours, about 100 people got hurt and about twenty got arrested, most of them young and out of town (including from Paris):  it seemed that it was just one more extreme "black bloc" manifestation. These guys are very violent but their violence never gets them anywhere. It didn't have anything to do with the kind of violence Genova experienced during the G8 meeting.

The power game is played elsewhere. Berlusconi, who's very canny, immediately set out to get more deputies on his side. Hunting for deputies and offering them juicy jobs in government and para-statal enterprises. Can he do that? Probably. There are deputies floating out there. Remember: since this summer Berlusconi got into a fight with his erstwhile ally, Fini, the lower house speaker (the Chamber of Deputies). The motions of no-confidence had been engineered by Fini who had gathered followers around him in a new group called the FLI (Future and Freedom in Italy - not yet a party).  But as Fini failed, a lot of his followers got disgruntled with him. In Italy, people don't like losers. Those are the deputies who could decide to join Berlusconi.

Moreover, for a short while, Berlusconi also hoped he could get other people roaming around the centre, notably Pier Ferdinando Casini, the UDC (Union of the Centre) leader. But that didn't work out: a so called "third pole" was promptly created the very next day under Casini's guidance, with support from Fini and leftist Rutelli. It is said that about 100 parliamentarians (from both the Senate and the lower House) have joined in.

So, in the end, Berlusconi might be able to draw to his side 6 to 10 deputies. That could help him control the lower house (he's not worried about the Senate: he's already got it under control). It's probably going to be enough to govern for a few more months - at least until March 2011. Why March? Because that's one of the things everybody knows in Italy but nobody writes about it in the foreign press: newly elected parlamantarians need to last half their 5-year mandate in order to cash in on their (very juicy) pension and benefits. So they have to stay put a full 2 years, six months and one day. That means no elections will take place in Italy before March...

And to think that Berlusconi had been set to govern the full five years of his mandate and had promised to bring "real changes" to Italy - not only clear up the recurrent garbage mess in Naples but bring in reform in all areas, from education to social security. He had a comfortable majority provided him by both Fini and Bossi, the head of the Lega Nord. How could Berlusconi blow it this way? Of course, Fini and Berlusconi bickered this summer, accusing each other of corruption and sexual depravities. Really. No chance that Berlusconi and Fini will ever be friends again. So Bossi remains Berlusconi's one and only ally. If Bossi withdraws his support, you can kiss Berlusconi good-bye.

Will Bossi support Berlusconi? Maybe but Bossi is a difficult man: he wants "Federalism". That means breaking up the central government and giving the power and the money to the regions. Some regions are already fairly autonomous like Sicily, Sardinia and Alto Adige, but what Bossi wants is the North of Italy (Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont) to be fully separated from the rest of the country. His party, the Lega Nord is particularly incensed at all the aid funds going to the (poor) South.

Predictably most Italians don't want Federalism, Berlusconi included. Not only out of a concern for the South but of the management mess Federalism would plunge Italy. How would the central government manage the transition to a totally decentralized treasury system without a breakdown in the system? How would the funds coming from the European Union be managed? The nightmare scenario scares everybody...except Bossi, of course. So he'll push for a vote, but when federalism will come up in Parliament, it will likely be defeated. And that's when a disgruntled Bossi will send Berlusconi home.

When will that happen? It's anybody's guess, except it won't happen before March, for sure...With new elections, can Berlusconi win again? Yes, he can. Because he's managed to pass an electoral law that gives him an unfair advantage, a so-called "premium" (premio di maggioranza): if you get 35% of the votes, you automatically gain a majority position and become the head of the government. Berlusconi has lost a lot of support among Italians but he can probably still obtain with his PDL (Polo delle Libertà) somewhere around 25 to 27% of the votes - so all he needs is an ally out there, maybe even Bossi again (who might get as much as 15%). Just add it up and voilà: you still have Berlusconi on your hands.

The irony is that this unfair electoral law (which also cuts out of Parliament any party with less than 5% of the votes) was passed with Fini's support. That was probably the single biggest mistake in his political career. Now, the "third pole" with Casini at its helm has to change that law asap if it wants to politically survive!

So the real question in Italian politics has nothing to do with motions of no confidence and everything to do with changing the electoral law. Italy has experimented with an electoral system that was supposed to give it a strong government and stability. But now it has become clear to everybody that the experiment has FAILED. It is high time the Italian political class realize this and move to do something about it...

Bottom line, Italy's problems - low productivity and competitiveness, lack of investment and high unemployment - continue unabated. It means that in the next elections politicians will have a hard time finding  support among their voters. People are fed up with ALL their politicians!   


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12.15.2010

Sarah Palin as a New Ms.Thatcher? Come on!

055/365 | Mikhail Gorbachev Caricature | Proje...Mikhail Gorbachev caricatureImage by myoldpostcards via Flickr
The other day, I attended the launching in Italy of the Italian translation of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, a brave attempt at historical analysis by John O'Sullivan, a British conservative journalist and political commentator at large. The title is a good one and the book tries to identify the role played by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II in the fall of the Soviet Union (for those interested, I've reproduced below the marketing blurb for the book published by Regnery Publishing in 2006)

The event went smoothly until someone asked Mr. O'Sullivan what major current political personalities he saw that might play a similar role today in the "fight against Islamism and the growing secularization of our society". Aside from the fact that I would never have formulated the major issues of our time in those terms - a point Mr. O'Sullivan failed to note - the political figures he proposed were simply ludicrous.

One was Tony Abbot, an Australian politician, leader of the opposition party and climate change skeptic. As nobody follows Australian politics in Italy, that left the audience feeling cool and indifferent. But when he mentioned the other, Sarah Palin, there was a murmur of disbelief. When he underlined her moral role, a couple of people left (I was one of them).

Really, Sarah Palin as a new Ms. Thatcher? As a moral figure to fight Islam and resuscitate Christian faith?  I've never thought of Sarah Palin as a model mother - remember what happened to her 17 year-old daughter who got pregnant? -  or as someone who knew anything about societal issues and international politics. 

This incident made me reflect that perhaps Mr. O'Sullivan's approach to recent history is profoundly wrong. How can you attribute the fall of the Soviet Empire to the Pope, the British Prime Minister and the American President? Surely Russia's last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with his new policy of perestroika and related radical reforms launched in 1986, had a lot more to do with it! True, Gorbachev established exceptionally good relations with Reagan and Thatcher and was full of admiration for the Pope whom he viewed as a moral force. But what happened in Russia had to do with what he and his entourage did.

More than that, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was the result of a long series of events, started in the 1970s under Leonid Brejnev, including economic stagnation and the unsustainable cost of military expenditures imposed by the Cold War. The implosion of the Soviet Union was an event coming from inside - that is the very meaning of implosion - and it had little to do with Mr. O'Sullivan's beloved threesome. There is no doubt that the Pope, Thatcher and Reagan were part of outside events that created a climate favourable to the Soviet Union collapse, but bottom line, an implosion is just that: an implosion and nothing else. That it happened without bloodshed is only natural. Indeed, Gorbachev is little liked in Russia where a lot of people see him as the primary cause of the demise of the Soviet Empire. Actually, the real story of the fall of the Soviet Union has yet to be written.

All this made me realize how difficult it is to write recent history. Mr. O'Sullivan who worked for Ms Thatcher and wrote her speeches is much too close to her to see her clearly. It is a fact that she started to dismantle the welfare state - a job Mr. Cameron is busy finishing off now. She launched deregulation and started privatizing national public services, and her friend Reagan had a similar role in launching an unbridled and extreme form of capitalism. Unfortunately, as we now know, it led, inter alia, to financial hubris on Wall Street that was the direct cause of the ongoing Great Recession.So Mrs Tatcher's heritage is not quite as positive as Mr. O'Sullivan would like to believe.  Beyond that, it raises the fundamental question Tolstoy asked in a fascinating epilogue  to his War and Peace: who or what really makes History, "great men" (he was thinking of Napoleon) or "the people" with perhaps a "great force" behind them (he was thinking of God)?

That of course is a question that would require more than a blog to explore. But it certainly makes books like O'Sullivan's seem like futile efforts that merely reflect the author's political views and have little to do with understanding "the course of History". 


Marketing Blurb from the Publisher of 
The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister
by John O'Sullivan

Regnery Publishing, Inc.; ISBN: 1596980168
Hardcover - 448 pages (October 2006)


They Changed the Course of History

They were three “middle managers” no one imagined could reach the top.

Ronald Reagan was too old to be president—and too conservative anyway. Margaret Thatcher was not only too conservative—she was a woman, and not on anyone’s short list to lead Britain’s Conservative Party. And the idea of a Polish pope—that was truly absurd, especially when the cardinal in question was a strong anti-Communist and defender of orthodoxy when many in the Church and throughout the world believed the future belonged to détente with the Soviets and social liberalism in the West.

Not only did Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) rise to the top, but all three of them also survived assassination attempts, collaborated in the miraculous peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet Communism, and reinvigorated their respective countries and the West. They were beacons of optimism cutting through the malaise and despair that afflicted 1970s America, strike-ridden and economically moribund post-imperial Britain, and a Catholic Church rocked by social and sexual revolutions.

In The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, veteran journalist and former Thatcher speechwriter John O’Sullivan reveals:
  • How Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul developed as strong and individual leaders, perfectly suited to take power when liberalism failed How John Paul’s papal visit to Poland in June 1979 led to the birth of the Solidarity labor union
  • How the pope’s moral undermining of Communism worried the Soviet Politburo more than any military threat
  • Why Thatcher’s handling of the Falklands crisis was a turning point in the Cold War
  • How Reagan arranged for the pope to receive U.S. intelligence on developments in the Soviet bloc
  • Reagan’s reluctant support for the nuclear “balance of terror”—and how he gratefully adopted the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as an effective alternative
  • The Soviets’ attempts to lure the pope into an anti-SDI campaign—and his refusal
  • How Reagan’s refusal to compromise with Gorbachev in Reykjavik precipitated the unraveling of Soviet power
  • How Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II restored optimism and hope to their people
Today, as we face a new and perhaps even deadlier enemy than Soviet Communism, we need to revisit the powerful lessons taught by these three great leaders who revived the faith, prosperity, and freedom of the West.
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12.13.2010

Does the Euro Deserve to Die?

La Faucheuse VersaillaiseLa Faucheuse Image by David_Reverchon via Flickr
This is going to be a crucial week for the Euro and the media and  blogosphere are already heating up. Strong words are bandied about: that the creators of the Euro were dishonest, imprudent, dumb, naive, liars. The Euro is close to collapse announces Chapman in the Market Oracle. "The Euro doesn’t deserve to survive" writes with finality Tim Hedges on his blog.

Sure,  much of the arguments are convincing: the Euro shouldn't have been launched with just monetary policy (courtesy the European Central Bank) to defend it; it needed an equally harmonized fiscal policy or the equivalent of a federal treasury. I've said that before when explaining that the Euro hobbles along on one leg only.

But  I don't think the Euro was conceived in "dishonesty": that's a very strong word and not fair to the ideals of Europeans. It was imprudent, yes, but in line with the way the United Europe dream has been constructed so far: bit by bit, always taking a step forward, forcing the other leg to follow suit.

Now the other leg MUST follow if the Euro is to be saved. No matter how you call it, what is needed is an institutional equivalent of a centralized treasury. Euro-partners will simply have to relinquish some (at first) of their fiscal sovereignty, and then (later) all of it. That is the only way forward. Anything pulling away from fiscal harmonization is detrimental. And, inter alia, that is the case with the Irish corporate taxes at 12.5%. I, for one, am committed to the construction of a United Europe and I am incensed at the Irish for having succeeded in maintaining their low corporate taxes through the bailout negotiations! I've said it before: such low rates are a Trojan Horse into the Euro-zone, giving an unfair advantage to multinationals who choose to have their headquarters in Dublin. Of course, such low rates benefit Ireland and create jobs there, but at the expense of Ireland's Euro-partners and that's not acceptable. Yet, it has been accepted by all partners in the Irish bailout, both the IMF and all European countries involved, UK included.

Why? It only goes to show that our political class has no guts...I agree with those who say that our politicians are the puppets of big banks and institutional bonholders and merely act in their interest. If Greece and Ireland were saved, it's only because the major holders of Greek and Irish bonds were big banks in the Euro-zone, and the average European citizen be damned! Or rather, the poor guy (the Greek and the Irish, you and me) should pull in his belt in and get ready for a long, drawn-out period of austerity and economic recession.

Europeans need to give up their so-called "sovereignty" on fiscal matters and move towards a real union. There is in fact no other way out and the bond market is reminding the European political class that they are in this TOGETHER. Indeed, German bonds, long thought to be the safest, are coming into harder times: all of a sudden, interests threaten to rise and demand at the latest bund auction turned weak. Experts say the German bonds are merely following the example of US Treasury bonds that are hitting rough waters, but nothing is less certain. Germany is not the US: it has its deficit under control, unemployment is down and exports are up. In fact, everybody knows the Germans will pay for whatever is needed to save the Euro. I grant you, it will happen at the last moment when they are cornered and no other move will be allowed, but it will happen. That's what the market is already discounting. For once, it would seem that bondholders have a clearer vision of the future than the European political class!

But it wouldn't be the first time bondholders were right. It really is very simple: the Germans cannot afford to let the Euro collapse. It would be too expensive for them. Imagine what it would do to their economy if major European partners defaulted around them: not just Greece and Ireland or Portugal (they're peanuts) but Spain and Italy! How quickly do you think they could move back to the Deutsche Mark without incurring disruption and fantastic losses in their export markets? Forget it! In the meantime, they are enjoying the ride: the Euro's value, with all this on-going sovereign debt crisis and hullaballoo, has gone down, and that helps their exports!

How close we are to saving the Euro is anyone's guess. Not close judging from the recent negative reaction of both Germany and France to the Italian proposal of floating "euro-bonds" (btw, another back door to fiscal harmonization). They rejected it without even taking the time to consider the idea, going so far as to express strong displeasure at Jean Claude Juncker, President of the Eurogroup, for supporting it. But Germany and France have "pledged to better align" their tax and labour policies and according to German finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble  those who bet against the Euro's survival are "making a mistake", echoing similar statements from Mario Draghi, the Italian Central Banker.

A lot of good words that no one believes in. What the bond market wants is facts...And so do we, the bedraggled Euro-zone citizens!

Post-scriptum: I don't have a crystal ball and the horror scenario of a Euro collapse is always possible. "In the ensuing chaos and recrimination," writes the Economist, "the survival of the EU and its single market would be in jeopardy. But by believing that a break-up cannot happen, the euro zone’s authorities will always tend to stop short of the radical measures needed to hold the project together. Given the likely and devastating chaos, it would be a mistake for a country to choose to leave. But mistakes occur in times of stress. That is why some are beginning to contemplate the unthinkable."

Let's hope it doesn't happen. Because if the Euro collapses, you can kiss good-bye to the dream of a United Europe - and along with its disappearance, Europe will have to bow out of the world scene. And the whole world will be the poorer for it. Not just because it means less aid to developing countries (remember, the Euro-zone countries are the biggest global provider of aid), but because it would mean humanitarian values and human rights would lose their greatest champions. Surely, on this score, China is not poised to replace Europe and America of late has shown a dismal record, with its healthcare reform law battered by the Republicans and already showing signs of imploding...

Being poor is no fun anywhere but it is less bad in Europe - for the time being and as long as the EU and the Euro last.
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