Thursday, 17 December 2009

Hell's bells a-jingling or 'sod this, I'm going home'

The Greek financial crisis made the BBC news. That's how bad it is.

And by that I don't mean that the BBC's nod bestows significance, or strictly come dancing dance-offs and wheely bin face-offs would be events of global import. What I mean is that the financial crisis in Greece got serious enough to be global news, where the Athens riots of last year got a passing mention and the national election of a mere few weeks ago, none at all.

And although normally, when I tell people in London I'm going home for a few days, their eyes glaze over and the croon 'oh lucky you, big blue sky and sandy beaches' even in February (and no, I never let them down by saying Greece is not on the equator and it's cold in winter). Now they shake their heads. My Greekness is cause for concern. 'Oh' the say. 'Oh'. 'Things are bad out there aren't they?'

Yes. Things are bad.
Things have been bad for as long as I can remember and yet still manage to get worse quite regularly. Astonishing really. But not in a good way.

New taxes appearing right left and centre in a desperate attempt to refill the empty state coffers with the massive twin holes in the bottom, deficit on the one side, corruption on the other. New taxes for everything, till the only thing left untaxed is thinking rich thoughts. And if anyone else is reminded of the Sheriff of Nottingham, let me know, because I can't get the story out of my head.

So what is to be done?
There are no jobs and those that exist are tragically underpaid.
Unless you have one of the government or party-related cushy jobs in which case you are not lucky, you are simply part of the problem.
There is no infrastructure, no growth, no fiscal policy.
There is little hope, limited enterprise, no silver lining.

Corruption in government and business alike. Venality. Paternalism.
Violence on the streets, sex on TV.
People living at home till they are 40 and using their meagre salaries as lavish allowances – what is not enough to live on becomes excellent pocket money when all it needs to buy you is over-priced coffees and the latest mobile phone.

Something's gotta give.
The parents who will eventually need to retire, the adults that will eventually need to stand on their own two feet, the flimsy bridge between soaring prices and plummeting salaries.
Something's gotta give.
Will it be riots again? Will it be the EU and the IMF stepping in and sorting us out? Will it be a Christmas miracle like in the movies? I know not.

I know not and, I confess, that for the next few days I will seriously try to care not.
I'll keep my head down and try not to think about any of this. I'll use my euros – bought with pounds that I have earned by myself, living in a home I am paying for myself, sustained by goods and services I am paying for myself through a job that, if nothing else, allows me to be financially independent as people my age should be. Paying predictable, if high, taxes. Living with occasional annoyance but not with despair. That's right. Living away from Greece and only visiting occasionally. As I will tomorrow.
A visitor.
And I'll use my euros to pay for over-priced coffees and exorbitantly priced glasses of local wine. I'll look at the Christmas tree and not the TV screen. I'll read a good novel and not the newspaper.

I'm going home, damn it.
I am going home, not to the crisis, not the crumbling state and social entropy. Not to the violence and the despair. Not even to the hope of a new start.
I am going home to my mum and like so many Greeks before me, I am leaving reality at her doorstep and cocooning myself for a few days. Only for a few days. Then I'll be back to being an adult, a worker, an analyst, a political animal. But not now.
Now I'm off to mum's and with any luck they'll be cookies on the table and cartoons on TV and I may even write a letter to Santa for that new pair of shoes I really want. And peace on earth. And a financial miracle for Greece.
It's Christmas, after all.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Just another Athens Sunday

Shoot-outs in Athens last night.
And all I hear you say is 'what's new then?'

A man and a woman shot at policemen in Metamorphosis, an Athenian suburb. The story goes that they were flagged down for a routine check, they duly stopped and when the policemen got out of their patrol car the pair, on a motorcycle, opened fire before speeding away and disappearing.

The motorcycle was later recovered but, surprise surprise, it had not been properly registered so we don't know who the Metamorphosis Bonnie and Clyde were, why they were armed and why they were so keen to flee.

And as nobody was injured, this is almost a non-story, buried in the back pages of the few newspapers that deigned to report it. And I am only mentioning it here as a backdrop to the main news: the fact that yesterday Nea Dimokratia got a new leader, a man who will spend the next few years trying to persuade us he is better, not only than his predecessor, but also better than the current prime minister at governing the ungovernable jungle that has become Greece. As of today, he wants to make the Metamorphosis shoot-out his problem. He wants to make the ailing economy his problem. He wants to make all our problems, his problem. So here we are. The scene is set and our great protagonist makes his entrance.
Antonis Samaras.
You cannot be bloody serious.

What's so bad, I hear you ask? Wasn't this man once hailed as the greatest hope for Greece's future?
Yes he was. But that was a long time ago. When we were all waiting for Samaras to save the day with bated breath, I was still in high-school and the New Kids on the Block still had a career.
And there has been nothing but water under the bridge since then. Dirty water under a rickety bridge, to be precise.

But let's be fair.
In many ways, Mr Samaras is a definite upgrade from Mr Karamanlis: he has as strong a pedigree being the son and grandson of famous and respected scientist and artists, he has an excellent educational background with degrees from Amherst and Harvard and, quite unlike Mr Kramanlis, he has experience in government. And that, in many ways, is where the problems start...

Mr Samaras served as Finance, Culture and Foreign Affairs minister throughout the 80s and 90s but, if you ask people what they remember him for, no grand policy initiative or genuine substantive change drive springs to mind. People remember him for one of two things:
they may remember his inflammatory and populist 'hard line' approach to the macedonian question that completely failed to take into account geopolitical realities, international treaties already signed or the sheer laws of probability...

Or they may recall the fact that, in 1993, he single-handedly brought down the government he had until the previous year been a minister for by creating his own party and encouraging the defection of an MP that tipped Nea Dimokratia's precarious majority. And all because he had been removed from his post for pursuing a misguided and pointless 'hard line' policy on the Macedonia question.

Mr Samaras' new party, with the comedy name 'Political Spring' and an ideological positioning that largely overlapped with Nea Dimokratia but was decidedly more conservative on a number of issues, was an excellent vehicle for vocal, sweeping opinions and grand dramatic gestures – made safe in the knowledge that the party would never be in government.
And of course it never was. In fact, the party was hardly in parliament as the joke grew tired soon enough. In fact, much sooner than Mr Samaras had anticipated and, after a fairly good run in the 1993 general and 1994 European elections, the party lost support and failed to be reelected. Ever. Then in 2004, mr Samaras rejoined the party he had beached a decade before.

I just want to make clear we all know who we are dealing with here.

And while he's back, with a bang and a vengeance, what I cannot quite decide is whether we – the Greek people, the electorate, the tax payers, the voters – are ridiculously good-hearted and forgiving or just plain dumb, forgetful and criminally indifferent.

And it's not Mr Samaras' victory alone that makes me wonder that. It's the nature of the campaign, the vendetta-style opposition between Samaras and the defeated Dora Bakoyiannis and the populist undertones that drove the voting: rewarding Samaras somehow for his 'stand' against a man that now everyone has learned to hate, the then Premier K. Mitsotakis.

Forgetting how politically irresponsible and devoid of substance Samaras' defection was in 1993, his supporters within the party chose to view it as 'resistance' to the man the entire party now hates, penalising Dora in the process for being mr Mitsotakis' daughter. Despite her solid record in office. And the fact that, regardless of whether you agree with her politics, she was the only contender for the conservative leadership with an agenda, a portfolio of genuine policy initiatives while in office and some political substance. But never mind all that, right? Cos we don't like her daddy. And her last boss. Which brings us back to Mr Samaras whose hands are clean of the failures of the last government. Because he was simply not in it. And why was he not in it? Because he rejoined the party he had brought down a decade previously in 2007 and he never got round to holding serious office, serving as minister of culture for a mere few months following a late-term reshuffle in 2008.
And now here he is, top dog.

Despite accusations of bullying leaked by other candidates. Despite the technical melt-down at the start of the election process that caused ripples among journalists who suspected Florida-style tampering and got momentary illusions of grandeur a la 'first Bush, now us'. And despite a populist campaign of assorted sound-bites, completely devoid of content.

Despite it all, he's back in black. And despite it all, the top dog promised he'll play nice and will 'wipe off with a sponge' (I am not making this up, check today's Eleftehrotypia for the original quote) all that he heard during the succession race because party unity is now uppermost. Let's all be friends, he says, and together let us 'lead the party in new struggles for the country's progress and young children's right to hope'.
No, it's not a bad translation, it made no sense in Greek either.

So here we are. And I am already dreading the next election. Already. Because it will be just another big pile of 'same old'. In the context of the same old corruption, the same old violence, the same old inefficiency, the same old poverty for the many and same old cushy set-up for the few.
It will be just another Athens Sunday when we go back to the polling booths in four years time and I am getting sick and tired. But at least Olympiakos won both the footie and the basketball yesterday. So thank God for small mercies. Because for once corruption, inefficiency and cushy set-ups gave me something to cheer about and given everything, all you can hope for in Greece is small mercies.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Afghanistan: does defeat go away if you refuse to accept it?

'The key is knowing when to call it a day' said my great uncle.
Although he was talking about drinking and not troop deployment to treacherous war zones, the rule applies. And the rule is this: if you set out to achieve something within a given time frame, and the time frame has elapsed many times over, and what you set out to achieve still eludes you then you have failed and the one thing that is guaranteed to not make the situation any better is a determination to carry on doing what you have been doing because, well, that's the bit that failed.

Modern warfare is nothing like old school sieges. Battering the wall until it cracks worked against medieval citadels but doesn't take you very far as a parable for modern war tactics.

What am I talking about?
I am talking about the front page of yesterday's Times.
I quote: 'President Obama is to ask members of NATO to provide up to 4,000 more troops to help break the deadlock in Afghanistan'. And a good morning to you too.

Although Obama's appeal is expected to go largely unheeded, 35,000 additional US troops are expected to hit Afghanistan before long with supplementary units from Britain and Turkey possibly joining them before long. Possibly.

Talk, of course, is around credibility: the credibility of the alliance if no troops are forthcoming... the credibility of President Obama himself, if his request is ignored... the credibility of the AK party government in Turkey if they send a few hundred more troops... and of course the credibility of our own superhero, Gordon Brown, whose willingness to send more troops is going down with the voters like a proverbial lead balloon. As is his explanation, that he's staying in this war to keep Britain safe.

The war rhetoric has no mileage in it any more.
Democracy for the Afghans peace for the world. Nice idea. Pity about the outcome.

Democratisation sounds good. But after last month's election debacle, I am surprised world leaders still mention democracy and Afghanistan in the same sentence without dying of shame.
'Indelible ink that washed off, voters walking home with whole ballot boxes, election monitors who didn't dare leave their NATO base'. You don't believe me, fish out your back copy of the Guardian (20.10.09) and see for yourself.

Is this our fault? I hear you ask. Hell yes. Have you forgotten the rhetoric? The promises? The democracy banners we waved the world over to justify the invasion and continued presence of allied troops in Afghan provinces up and down the country? Democracy is what we were there to give. Allegedly. Elections were the West's idea and were supposed to take place under our tutelage and protection. Go us. And by this time round the Afghans were supposed to have picked up a few tricks, willing and able disciples of worthy tutors.

As it turned out, the election was not exactly a showcase of democracy in action.

I am not suggesting the allied troops had anything to do with rigging the election. Karzai and his cronies did that all on their own – although their ineptitude even at that suggests they could have used some help, with hindsight. But then again, Karzai could not have had any more help, realistically: from being hand-picked and propped up every step of the way, to being given trust he had not earned as he repeatedly refused there was a fraud problem of any real magnitude on American TV. Not to mention the international community simply not intervening at any point during proceedings, trusting, cowering. Stalling. Failing to pre-empt, failing to prevent, failing to end the abuses.
Failing at delivering democracy to the Afghans and peace to the world.

And while the democratisation experiment is clearly not working (yet), more troops are needed in the name of peace, we are told.
Only UK voters are not buying any of this any more.
According to a poll published in yesterday's Independent '4 out of 5 of those questioned do not believe that British involvement in the conflict... is keeping the streets of Britain safe from terrorist attacks'.

So. If by being in Afghanistan we are not helping them and we are not helping ourselves, why exactly are we there still and how will 35,000 additional US soldiers and another 4,000 allied troops help achieve what we are failing at?

Put it this way: How will more troops prevent future killings from corrupt Afghan police officers? I'll tell you how. By taking patrolling away from them and putting it back in the hands of allied troops. By entrenching their presence even further.

But what else can you do? When you have failed but cannot stop doing the same thing... partly because you have no other ideas and partly because you have unleashed forces you cannot control and have managed to leave yourself no way out. What else can you do? Because when you went in, it did not occur to you that an exit strategy may be needed. Because it never occurred to the leadership that it may just be essential to call it a day at some point.

More troops then.
Because we have worked our way clean out of options. More troops.
Because we have ran out of ideas and need to be seen to be doing something.
More troops.
Even though that does not change the fact that refusing to admit defeat doesn't mean you are winning.

Friday, 30 October 2009

When 'every little' doesn't help

'May you live in interesting times'.
That, says my beloved Terry Pratchett, is not a blessing. Rather it's a bit of a curse, if you think about it. And there is no denying that we are now living in interesting times. And there is no denying that's not all that great. But that's no excuse for totally losing all sense of perspective.

We are scared.
Of terrorism. Of pedophiles. Of swine flu. Of the E coli 0157:H7 virus and other pathogens carried in poorly packaged or poorly cooked meat. Of Nick Griffin and hate preachers. Of racists. Of Islamic fundamentalists. Of sounding racist. Of our own shadows.

We are scared at the citizen level and we are scared at the government level. And what do we do about it? If you look through the papers of a day, you may well come to the same conclusion as me: what we do about it is kick frantically to all directions, keeping clear of the heart of each issue but making enough noise to look like we are doing something. When all we are doing is making noise. And noise is rarely a good thing.

Now as you know, I live in Britain so my examples are local yet I fear that, no matter where you are, similar things are happening every day: a sense of impeding hysteria, an overwhelming sensation that we really do not know what to do to prevent bad things from happening so we'll just try to allow few things to happen full stop and thus play the numbers game.

We all laugh when we see airport security staff putting children's plastic sandals through the scanner. Laugh but don't stop them because you never know and better to be safe and late than sorry and dead.
But what is the outer limit of caution?

Britain's tabloids have gone wild this week as parents in Watford are no longer allowed to supervise their children in playgrounds unless they have undergone criminal records checks. Vetted 'play rangers' are to supervise children instead of mums and dads.

Why? Because the case of Vanessa George has sent shock-waves through the nation. She is a paedophile. She is a woman. She is a mum. That means the demographic of potential dangers to children just widened to include absolutely everyone, so absolutely everyone is banned from playgrounds and here's to hoping that whatever tests play rangers are subjected to are the right kind and perverts don't creep through. I would still personally prefer to know that each kid was looked after by his or her parent. And that parents are keeping an eye on each other. What the hell. I would like to know that when I have kids I will be allowed to keep an eye on them myself.

But with a recent case of suspected rape of an eight-year old girl by two ten-year-old boys, stunning us all into silence, the only truth is that we really don't know how to keep our kids safe and putting them in a glass jar may well be the only way forward. Because if our children are not even safe from other children, then what is safe?
A glass jar. Safety through separation.

Now, I don't have kids. But I'm guessing, in light of recent events, if I had kids and was not allowed to keep an eye on them in the playgrounds, I'd just keep them away from the playgrounds and be done with it. Was that what the council was going for? I'm guessing not. But that's what they'll get. Because a blanket policy of considering everyone guilty until proven innocent is never going to bring about good things. Still how can we expect Watford council to maintain a sense of perspective when everyone else has lost it?

A woman in labour asked for 'ethnic minority' staff to leave her bedside, at a hospital in Milton Keynes earlier this week. It is not clear what particular minority she objected to (although according to reports, it was one group in particular she objects to) and it is not clear why she objected to them being present. What is clear is that the hospital refused to accommodate her. So the hospital acted as they should. Her request was racist, unreasonable and by the sounds of it unreasoned. The hospital overruled her and she went home a while later with a healthy child.

Now she could be facing action in a county court on grounds of discrimination. And although I object to her racism and find her ability to demand racial segregation between contractions faintly amusing, I can't help but think that the thought police are on the prowl. I disagree with what she stands for. But she didn't act on it because the hospital did not let her. So what would the trial be about? And why is there a threat from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the hospital may be under suspicion as well, when no discriminatory act was perpetrated by hospital staff?

I fear the answer is simpler than we are comfortable with: this is the sort of problem we can deal with, be outraged by, 'handle', judge and close. Only it doesn't solve a thing. If anything, it exacerbates the situation. The likes of Nick Griffin can spin the whole 'no place for Britons in Britain' tale and the bottom line remains that we have lost perspective because the big issues are just too big for us to deal with so we contend ourselves with the contained little issues thinking it's better than nothing. Only it isn't. It's actually worse than throwing hands up in the air and going 'this is too big and I can't fix it the way I've been fixing things hitherto. I need to think, I need to change'.

If you are not sold yet, here is another example:
An elderly lady in Norfolk wrote to her council to complain about a gay pride march in her vicinity. I personally enjoy Pride and everything it stands for and tend to join when I can although I am not, myself, gay. Nobody cares. Pride, as I know it, is inclusive and open and most participants would welcome elderly ladies from Norfolk if they wanted to join in the festivities. But they would equally accept her right to refrain, even to disapprove of them. Each to their own and all that.

And a letter to the council is a rather innocuous – if pointless – form of protest that will not have any real effect on Pride. On this occasion, however, it may have a real effect on the person complaining as the council wrote back to the homophobic old lady warning her that she may be guilty of a hate crime. The matter was passed on to the police and I expect it to be dropped but the point remains: with real hate crimes committed every day, why is a narrow-minded pensioner exercising a democratic right to free speech targeted? It could be because a council employee was not thinking or was misguidedly over-zealous. It could also be that she is simply an easier target than say the thugs who still engage in gay bashing in the centres of our towns. The same way that a bigoted mother in labour is an easier target than the police officers whose routine racism victimises young, black males as a matter of course as the Guardian recently revealed.
And I use 'revealed' very loosely here.
Because we all know.
We know racism is a violent reality for many people in our communities. Homophobia is spectre in many lives. Real, physical dangers to people's bodily integrity and sense of safety.
And yes we do know that child abusers of all genders and all ages are also abroad.
We know all that.

The question is what do we do about it?
And all I'm saying by pooling together three largely unrelated examples is that we are currently doing NOTHING. Because bashing soft targets and imposing blanket bans is not making our society more tolerant or safer, it is just making it more hypocritical, harder to live in and less likely to resolve the real issues underlying the violence and sense of threat that seems to hide in every dark corner.
Making every person a suspected paedophile does not make children safer.
Punishing unsavoury opinions does not make hate crimes less likely. Making opinion - however unpalatable - a crime makes us the bad guys. It makes our democracy shambolic while race and homophobic crimes - actual acts, the stuff the law should target - carry on occurring because they are not properly prevented or followed up.

And creating a society of division, mistrust and fear will not make anyone safer.
So no, ladies and gents, every little does not always help. Particularly when we are trying to navigate through 'interesting times' without throwing everything we have achieved through decades of social struggle, democratisation and liberalisation overboard.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

What fearing Nick Griffin tells us about ourselves

Why is everyone so scared of letting the leader of the British National Party speak during tonight's Question Time show? Why is everyone so worried about what it will signify, to take a seat on a panel next to him, in obvious opposition to him?
Don't give me that crap about legitimising him. What additional legitimacy does a democratically elected representative of the people need?

Tell me what's really on your mind people.

Are you afraid that cool, articulate, unflustered, racist Nick Griffin will get his despicable point across better than the representatives of the political mainstream?
Because that is what I am afraid of.
I am afraid he will be calmer than the other guys.
Less arrogant in the eyes of the average viewer.
I am afraid he will be more articulate and more convincing, keeping things real and relevant, never using abstractions and generalisations. I am afraid he will manage to reduce big issues to small, personal fears in a way that is non-patronising and almost self-evident.
I am afraid he will do all that without insulting any of his fellow panelists while they will be struggling to hold back cries of 'begone you disgusting racist slug'.
And I am afraid that the other side, the non-racist side, our side damn it, will be left speaking in generalities, attacking his racism but offering no coherent answer to counter his concerns and offering absolutely no counter-solution to his own objectionable measures.

So the problem is not him. It's us, folks.

Let's call a spade a spade.
Immigration is not a subject most parties are comfortable with. Invariably, even parties on the left are in favour of controlling the borders and not throwing the gates open to all and sundry. Increasingly centre and left-of-centre parties grudgingly accept that freedom of speech will not deal with radical Islamist preachers in our midst 'organically' and a bold fresh look is needed asking where their liberty infringes on someone else's – not on a community basis but on an individual basis, you know, the way we used to apply the law all these years before this became such a 'hot potato' issue. And then there is the issue of building community, and living together in all our multi-colour, multi-faith, multilingual splendour.
And many left or centre-left politicians are not comfortable with immigration debates because they rightly consider these three issues distinct and separate and find that more and more people don't and in fudging the debate these people confuse the matter, create panics and allow concerns over hate preachers to poison community relations.
Nick Griffin is one of those people.

He is not afraid to talk about immigration. For him the distinctions are distracting and the problem boils down to what moves and scares the individual citizen. And his solutions are stark, simple, bold. And racist.
But what is the other side counter-suggesting?
A convoluted narrative of freedom, multi-culturalism and necessary border controls, constant reminders that the problem is multi-faceted and many-tiered and above all not simple. All solutions offered are halting, nuanced, complicated, careful – because one should not confuse the issues. And rightly so. Still, I fear that Nick Griffin has this one wrapped up if 'straight talking' is what the audience are after.

Holding a contradiction in his mind is not a challenge for Mr Griffin who is both articulate and clever. He understand the contradictions and in them he sees the weakness his opponents most suffer from. This contradiction, in his hands, stops being innate in the subject and becomes a weakness in his opponents' political will and solutions' agenda.

What do we have to counter that? I am using 'we' in the loosest possible sense here, siding with the people who disagree with Nick Griffin even if that is the only thing we agree on.

What have we got?
Don't forget Jack Straw is sitting on our side.
Griffin is articulate, confident and confidence-inspiring. He sounds like he commands the issues and can effortlessly pare them down to their essence. Even though that essence is tainted, one-sided and heavily nuanced, he appears to be offering common sense summaries and bold solutions. Jack Straw is not and does not.

So why are we so scared of letting him speak tonight?
Not because we disagree profoundly with what he has to say – that, if anything, is reason to take him on, thrash it out, expose him to the public, ensure the other side is heard.
Not because we fear what his effect might be on the polity – because he is already in the polity so it is too late, plus we already know that enforced isolation and silence creates heroes and not villains.

It is because we are afraid we can't match him, blow for blow, for the hearts and minds of the viewers. And that is terrifying.
It's because we know Nick Griffin is as popular as his opinions are objectionable. And we know we have all the good arguments. But we don't have a Nick Griffin on our side to deliver those arguments in level, even-toned, convincing, populist nuggets.

So we are scared.
Of course we are scared.
I, for one, am terrified.

And I don't know about you. But I will be glued to Question Time tonight. Munching pop-corn, mumbling to myself and hoping against hope that Griffin will have a bad day, that he will lose his cool, that he will sound to all tonight as offensive as he sounds to me all the time. And that Baroness Warsi, Chris Huhne or Bonnie Greer will pull an ace out of their sleeves explaining why a world where Nick Griffin's opinions are not put into practice is a better world for all. And that Jack Straw stays silent. Wishful thinking but what the hell, while I'm at it I might as well.

I just hope that the arguments for our side go further than 'Nick Griffin, you are a racist' because he will slam them down and go for a home run before anything else has been stated. Not because he is not racist. But because pointing out the obvious in a petulant way is not good debating.
Telling him his policies are wrong because he is a bad person is a non-sequitur that makes us look like fools with nothing else to say and gives him the moral high-ground.
And that's the last place you want to concede to your neighborhood racist. He is already self-appointed defender of home and hearth, hand him the moral high ground on a platter and what have you got? A populist, playing on everyone's most closely guarded fears, articulating their concerns about safety on their streets, jobs for their children, a culture they call their own, who is victimised by the very same people who don't address the people's worries, the very same people who have no counter-argument to throw his way than an insult.
Attack him on who he is rather than what he says and you've driven people into his arms in droves.

You do see where I'm going with this right?
The urge to slap Nick Griffin lurks in us all. But that is not what is called for today.
We need to take him on the issues or go home. Blow by blow, line by line. Address the same questions, counter his conclusions, offer alternative solutions.
Speak to the same people he is speaking to on the same issues.
He claims he is of the people, for the people. Do we all realise what that means?
If he is addressing a struggling, white manual labourer in Bradford, we cannot be addressing a professor of ethics at Edinburgh. If he speaks about protection against radical Islam, we cannot be addressing comparative theology scholars who understand that the Islamic Umma is a community of peace ergo Griffin is wrong.
Take him on, damn it. Being more highbrow than him is how we lose this battle not how we win it.
Surely, career politicians can do this, right?

So what are we afraid of?
Are we afraid of 'the people'? Their inability to see through him and know better? Then we should all go home because no democrat is afraid of the people. You either trust in the people or join the populists a la Nick Griffin.

So if not that then what?
Could it be that although we disagree with Griffin we have absolutely no ideas on the matter he is about to challenge us on that we are comfortable with? I sincerely hope not. But I can see no other explanation that makes sense. We are afraid of Nick Griffin because he's calling our bluff and, other than grand ideas, the political mainstream have nothing to suggest that makes sense to their voters.
In which case we should be afraid of Nick Griffin. Very afraid.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Forget Wonderland. Through the Looking Glass, lies Turkey

If asked to take a guess, would you suppose that:
A western-oriented, secularist, aggressively modernising party would be in favour or its country joining the EU?
An army would be traditionally conservative and sympathetic to religion and tradition?
A populist government would always make sure they carry the people with them?

Yeah, you would, wouldn't you?
Only if you were talking about Turkey you'd be wrong.

In Turkey, the populist Islamist government currently in power is in favour of EU accession and the secularist, traditionally westernising opposition (the CHP, Atatürk's own party) are vocally against all reform efforts and, although theoretically in favour of accession, effectively blocking the path to EU by demanding that the EU 'respects' Turkey in ways that make no sense to the EU whatsoever. Not that the Euros mind. All delays to Turkey's accession are well and good by Brussels, but that's another story altogether.

Meanwhile the AKP is locked in a battle to the death with the country's high-profile, aggressively secularist military who, quite frankly, loathe the AKP and everything it stands for and are – possibly, maybe – trying to undermine the government quite actively. A series of leaks (more on this in a minute) have caused the army's otherwise impeccable reputation to suffer and for the first time in the Republic's eight decades, the people are losing faith in the military and are beginning to see the value in purging politics from military influence and putting the soldiers back in their box.

The AKP, of course, agrees and has been trying to do just that for the best part of a decade now. But do they manage to carry the people with them?
No sir.
They manage, magically, to make the people feel excluded from proceedings and by-passed as the government is acting on what everyone in principle agrees upon but without any public debate or evident deliberation. And although agreement over the bottom line is there, these are vital questions affecting the nature and future of the Turkish polity and reform without deliberation is unacceptable in principle, agreement notwithstanding.
You'd think that for sheer ease the government would have capitalised on the popularity of the idea, being populist and all. But paternalistic habits die hard and even populists take a leaf out of the book on old school Turkish politics traditions.

Under normal circumstances you would expect the opposition to make the most of the government's failures roundabout now. But don't hold your breath.
The opposition is even more paternalistic than the AKP who have nothing to worry about because the CHP seems hell-bent on working itself into extinction one statement at a time.

First of all, the CHP are perceived (and dismissed) as a mouthpiece for the increasingly discredited military. This, at least, gives them something relevant to say as, when not saying what the generals want them to say, the CHP have little to say that is of any interest to the people. Out of touch? And then some as the CHP have been outside power for the best part of two decades and once, after the 1999 elections, also outside Parliament. Popularity is evidently not the word here but has the CHP leader Deniz Baykal resigned to let a more credible (not to mention likeable) candidate to take the reigns? Like hell he has.

Now being perceived as the mouthpiece of the military wouldn't have been all that bad had it not been for a series of recent leaks and almost-scandals that show the military getting really jittery, planning coups, plotting against the government and against powerful religious brotherhoods, particularly against the Gülenists. Obviously, none of these plots have come off – or I would have been blogging about that instead – and most of them have been stopped by the military leadership themselves but the fact remains that people believe the military is taking things too far. All cries that the memos are fabricated or that the army purges itself fail to drown out the feeling that the time is right for change.

The people want it.
The Gülenists want it.
The AKP want it.

So why is it not happening?

Well. Bits of it are happening. Change is afoot and has been non-stop since 2001. To a Turkey buff like me the changes that have come to pass in the past 8 years are immense, mind-boggling, 'I never thought I'd see this' type changes. But to the naked eye, things are not as great. To the close-up look of a Turkish citizen or the bird's eye view of an external observer, change is slow, sluggish, halting, half-hearted and above all: a bit of a sand-castle on the surf. Because you can reform all you want, unless you tackle the constitutional foundations of the state, it's like selecting toppings before you make sure you have enough flour to make a pizza.

And what I mean by that is this: for all the bravado and all the radical mini reforms, the AKP's policy has been a balancing act so far. Pushing change as far as it can go before things snap, break, shatter and come back to bite you in the proverbial rear. The AKP's genius – if you will permit me the term – is that they have managed to play on all their opponents' weaknesses while using their opponents' ideas to further their own cause. And it has worked. It has worked well enough to keep the AKP in power, to keep the EU happy and the accession process ticking over. It has also helped accomplish important and much needed reforms and keep the people on side. Most of the time.

But a balancing act rarely bodes well as a sign of decisive political will, which is what fundamental constitutional reform would entail.
In short.
Turkey's constitution was written by the army in the 80s. It reflects their ideas, it promotes their priorities and it upholds their role as guardian of the Republic.
This constitution has been massively amended. It is now a patchwork of ideas and a lot of the 'in your face' militaristic provisions have been removed. So what? The heart of it remains and it will always do until someone has the political balls to say 'enough of this, let's make a new constitution that tells the soldiers what to do rather than the other way round'.

But who is going to be that guy?
And assuming we get 'that guy', where on earth will he start?
Where do you start in a political system where nothing is what you expect, allegiances are very idiosyncratic and nobody ever says exactly what they mean because there are laws against that.
And even when things seem aligned, groups seem to agree, consensus seems almost inevitable nothing ever happens like you'd think it would. Because you are through the looking glass and nothing is as it seems.

And as with the fairytale, so with Turkey, while the white rabbit, the mad hatter and the queen of hearts indulge in their games, express their quirks and pursue whatever takes their fancy, it is the common folk that have to dodge the Cheshire cat, ensure they hold onto their heads and try to build for themselves a semblance of normality despite it all.
And you can't help but think that, given the circumstances, 'that guy', 'those guys' the people who can visualize and implement real change are exactly the people who are trying to get past the cat and the deranged queen of hearts. The people who could change it all are exactly the people who are too busy trying to build a life, despite it all.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cry, the beloved country

I did not vote yesterday.
I live in London, innit?

Plus the election results seemed almost predestined.
Plus, I cannot legitimately bring myself to choose between the choices available and as casting a blank 'protest' ballot would simply boost the top party along its way in this curious twist of proportional representation whereby blank and spoiled ballots are added to the votes knowingly cast for the winner, I didn't vote.

But this is not a critique of Greece's electoral system.
It's not a critique of Greece's political system.
It's just a realisation, that crept up on me slowly last night as I was watching the results come in over the internet and talked on the phone with family and friends out in Greece. And the realisation is this: we, the Greek public, are like one of those girls, neglected, abused and unloved by their boyfriends but so convinced we can do no better, that we have learned to draw pleasure from the days when he isn't so bad and we are simply over the moon on the days he can muster some basic decency. And so deep is this conviction that we can do no better that, when we finally leave the brute, we end up in the arms of someone just like him because 'that's what men are like'.

How many times on the run-up to this election did you say: 'well, at least the new one cannot possibly be as bad as the last one, he may try but it is impossible to be just as bad'?
How many times did you hear: 'well now the only way is up, surely we have hit rock bottom'?
How many times did the voting public vocally and actively affirm that they considered the choices presented to them inadequate and the act of voting a mechanical discharge in the hope that further evil would be averted by removing from power the guy who so clearly failed to resolve all the pressing problems that presented themselves on his watch?

And replace him with what?
A guy the voting public had pointedly rejected twice before.
A guy who did not have the decency to resign when he should have because he knew that if he stuck around it was a matter of time before we needed somewhere to run, away from the neglect and abuse of our Nea Dimokratia boyfriend. And despite our previous rejections, when things got depserate and we had nowhere else to run, we did run straight into the arms of suitor number 2, George Papandreou: twice rejected but never actually gotten rid of.
He stuck around shamelessly and here he is now, in power.

So don't talk to me about George Papandreou's 'triumph'. Mr Karamanlis simply lost the election. He lost it with a bang, he lost it by a mile but he lost it by himself. Mr Papandreou didn't need to actively win it. He just needed to wait for power to land on his lap. As it did.

Semantics, I hear you say?
Negative voting of the 'I really don't want this guy, I'll vote for the other one' variety makes the lives of politicians really really easy. They do not need to campaign on the issues, they do not need to stick to the issues, they hardly need to do anything about the issues once they are in power. All they need to do is be perceived as a better choice than the other guy. So on this occasion Karamanlis had sunk so low in people's estimations that Papandreou could have turned up on the day without campaigning and he still would have won by a landslide.

'Ultimate personal vindication' for Papandreou, says the front page of Eleftherotypia today.
Give me a break.
They feed us this crap and we sit here and take it. As if the election results prove that Papandreou was right not to resign after his last defeat – and the one before – as if this proves we were always coming back to him. As if the poor choice and the chronic damage it is doing both to our political culture and to the country as such is not even worth mentioning. Because when it comes to prime ministers and boyfriends, they are all much of a muchness and prince charming has been dead for decades.

At least Karamanlis resigned, so that is that there and on we go with a new face and old ideas when the time for their leadership election comes. Even more mediocre suitors to choose from. But maybe the baseline will be higher. Maybe Nea Demokratia's next leader will realise that if you have been in power two years, during which all you have achieved is beaching the economy and watching idly on while riots raged throughout your country, well if those conditions are met then you don't call an election unless losing it is what you are after.
And maybe that is what you were after, Mr Karamanlis, you were tired after all and the glamour wore off pretty soon this second time round, didn't it?

So what have we got?
A populace that is dispirited, tired and completely disillusioned. A populace that puts up with the neglectful, abusive boyfriends because it is convinced that mediocrity is 'as good as it gets' and the goal is to swap one inadequate man with another to avoid the worst of it and keep afloat.

This makes the job of running for elections that bit easier. The less your voters care, the less you have to do to convince them. The less your girlfriend expects, the more you get away with.

Meanwhile, the parties of the left are losing support – not fast, but noticeably – and LAOS, the racist, ultira-nationalistic, uber-rightist party that seemed like a bad joke when it first hit our TV screens is gathering votes – fast and noticeably.

Does that matter?
Damn right it does.
Because some people vote for mr Karatzaferis despite his politics, for his affability – and that is simultaneously stupid and irresponsible. But many are voting for him for his politics and his affability: at least he cares, they say, and maybe he could have handled the riots better (as the extreme right are want to do) and maybe he would have handled the economic crisis better, by clamping down on the illegal immigrants because, didn't you know, they brought down the international banking system and are to blame for Greece's ailing economy.

So maiden Greece assessed her available suitors and, convinced she can do no better, is salvaging what she can. Taking the power mantle away from the guy who failed her most recently and giving it to the guy whom she has repeatedly rejected but who won't take the hint because he knows, he just knows her expectations are low and if he waits long enough, if he just waits long enough.

And he did. Wait long enough. And here we are in his arms. In fact, so eager were we to get rid of Karamanlis, that we rushed to the polls and gave the new guy a majority that means he doesn't need to consult with anyone, within or outside parliament, setting him up to be our new abusive and neglectful boyfriend, convinced that we can do no better.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Blogging for democracy

World rejoice. I am back.
I've been offline for a whole month and, although I am sure you missed me and, I assure you, I missed you back, I must report that it is possible to live away from a computer. For a few weeks, I caught a glimpse of a parallel universe in which my friends were not scattered the world over, my job did not rely on shared documents and email and day-to-day activities did not depend so totally on the internet.
You guessed it. I was on holiday.

In real life of course staying away from the computer is not an option. Work. Checking cinema listings. Submitting my tax return. Downloading the latest TED talk. Reading the papers. Chatting to friends. Grocery shopping. Job applications. Travel bookings and theatre reservations.
What did we ever do before the internet? But really, what are we really doing with the internet?

Bear with me.
I was walking through Athens a few weeks ago till a gaggle of teenage tourists caught my eye.
'The Pnyx. Where the hell is the Pnyx. I don't see anything' said one.
Behind you, you moron, thought I.
But I didn't say it. Because really, the Pnyx is not much to look at. Places where real business takes place rarely are. The Pnyx, or what is left of it, is easy to just walk past and, in the dark, it looks less like a world heritage site and more like an empty lot. Which, nowadays, it is in more ways than one.
So the tourists walked on, having decided that their guide book was rubbish and it was time for a drink and I was left thinking that they are not alone in having totally missed the Pnyx.

Athenian democracy was flawed, we all know that. But the one thing that was right about it was the Pnyx and everything that transpired there as this was where the citizens, free and equal, got to speak, openly and on any subject they wished to speak on.
Dull? I bet it was.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry having a constitutional right to go on and on and on (and on) about their pet peeve, their favourite gripe. Painful. But vital. For democracy. For community. For fairness. In the Pnyx no politician could ever claim to be 'the voice of the people'. The people would speak for themselves and tell him where to get off. The people can of course be wrong – they did, after all, kill Socrates and exile Aristeidis – but that's an occupational hazard if you are a democrat. At least back then the people had a chance to get it wrong themselves, rather than by proxy.

Democracy is not meant to be the system of good outcomes. Democracy takes care of the many. If the many are wrong, so is their polity. If the many are brutal so is their state. If the many are inspired, so is their society.
Democracy has nothing to do with the what and everything to do with the how.

For the ancients, getting that right involved leaving women and slaves out of it because they had no cognitive abilities. Do I disagree with it? Of course I disagree with it. But I don't disagree with the premise, even though it would leave me out in the cold without a vote.
Deciding who your citizens are is hard and every benchmark is arbitrary – gender, age, money, nationality, religion, race: what criteria define 'the people'?
Lines need to be drawn and it is not always obvious where you should draw them. Women today have universal suffrage while monarchs, refugees, migrants, lunatics, children and criminals don't get the vote.
Defining 'the people' is neither easy nor straightforward.
In Athens that group was narrow and closed. But at least it was equal and free. Which is more than we can say about the citizen body of any modern democracy.

In Athens only free-born, Athenian-born males of some property were part of the 'people'. The group was small. Still it had wild variations within. But once you were in you were in and you got to benefit from a system that was there to serve you. Now there's a thought.
Inequalities of wealth and status among citizens did not matter in the exercise of civic duty and the enjoyment of civic rights. Politics was the great leveller. The exact opposite of today's democracy where status, money, skin colour and connections determine power, access, influence and civic security.

Democracy in its purest form rested on three simple principles: isonomia, isopoliteia, isigoria.
All citizens are equal under the law.
All citizens have equal voting rights.
All citizens have an equal right to debate policy.

The Pnyx is the spatial substantiation of the principle of isigoria, the forgotten heart of democracy, the right and opportunity to speak on an equal footing in matters of state.

Of course, the three principles of Athenian democracy are mentioned in every self-proclaimed democratic constitution in Europe, America and, I am sure, in a few even less probable locations. We pay lipservice to isigoria: everyone is allowed to speak. Everyone is allowed to stand for election. Everyone is allowed to speak to their MP. In the UK you are even allowed to stand on a soap box and speak to the pigeons of Hyde Park Corner.
So bloody what?
It ain't the Pnyx is it? It ain't the Pnyx if nobody is listening.

Isigoria means you have a right to be listened to. Not just a right to babble.
Isigoria means you have guaranteed access to media that will allow your opinions to be heard and considered. In ancient Athens that medium was a rock near the Acropolis. Central. Good acoustics. It worked.
Today it would be an online citizen forum, a people's assembly, a rally.
Today it could be a million and one things – we have, after all, the internet.
We have it, but what do we do with it?

A lot. Actually.
Our governments may not be helping here. They don't protect our access. They don't encourage our participation. But now, for the first time ever, we don't need them to. We have the internet.
The internet is for porn and facebook.
The internet is for speed dating and spam email.
The internet is full of fascinating blogs, community portals, grassroot mobilisation sites, civil society organisations and communal action outlets.
The internet is our Pnyx.

So blog away my friends and let's get back what is rightfully ours.

And next time someone asks where the Pnyx is within earshot, I'll give them the only possible answer: it's wherever you make it happen.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Broken record day: Iraq

July 31st, US troops roll back leaving security operations in Iraqi hands. Five minutes later all hell breaks loose. Of course that is an exaggeration but in the 2 weeks since the withdrawal of US troops there have been no fewer than 5 separate bomb attacks in Iraq.

On Friday last week, 36 people died in a series of attacks in Shia areas.
Just another day in Iraq?
Pretty much.
A couple of days ago, two truck bombs exploded in Khaznah, near Mosul. 23 dead, 130 injured.
Meanwhile, two more bombs went off in Baghdad killing 16 and injuring 80 people.

A mere two weeks after US troops pulled back leaving security in Iraqi hands, bombs are going off, taking out houses in residential neighborhoods, targeting labourers gathering for work, killing pilgrims, ensuring normal life is still not an option in Iraq.

Of course they are trying to make a point.

The attacks are extremely well-orchestrated, with bombs going off simultaneously in disparate locations. And although the bombs seem to target Shias more than Sunnis, mixed areas are hit frequently enough to make the violence all-enveloping.

The challenge to the government is palpable.
Can they handle the security situation? They say they can. But if you are waiting for the next bomb to go off you may not feel that secure. But that's another day in Iraq. It's not like anyone has felt safe since all this started in March 2003.

First it was the invasion. Then it was the insurgency. Now we hear that it's al-Qaeda. That's right. Mosul is allegedly the last stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The frequent deadly bomb blasts that have been shaking Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces are attributed to that shady and seemingly omni-potent organisation. Elusive yet seemingly to blame for all ills and all ailments.

Meanwhile bombs explode in building sites and rubbish piles. The Iraqi government says this is the last of the insurgency. The European press says this is al-Qaeda fighting on. And the Iraqis just ask themselves when will this all stop?

Early in 2003, before troops were deployed into Iraq, George W. Bush speaking to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward (yes, Bob of Watergate fame) said that he expected that the war in Iraq would be over in a matter of weeks. Big cheese invasion general Franks concurred. A few weeks should do it.

We now know how much they didn't know then. How much they didn't understand, didn't take seriously, didn't think through. We know that the Iraqi exiles Bush's administration took advice from were horribly out of touch at best and severely biased at worst. We know that ORHA and subsequent reconstruction efforts were chaotic some of the time and shambolic the rest. We know the war was not over in a matter of weeks. And we know that although US troops are withdrawing – because Obama pledged they would – the war is not over yet. And reconstruction is but an elusive dream for all concerned.

So let's recap.
The US and their coalition of the willing went into Iraq in 2003 for four stated reasons:
1. To find and destroy weapons of mass destruction.
2. To remove Saddam from power.
3. To liberate Iraqis and bring them democracy.
4. To fight the war on terror and make the world a safer place.

So 1 out of 4.
Saddam is deposed and dead but on the rest, the scoreline doesn't look so good. Weapons of mass destruction simply did not exist and the capability for creating them was questionable at best. Iraqis are liberated from Baathist oppression but with constant violence and destruction every day over the past 6 years, liberty is not a word that springs to mind. As for democracy, we've talked about this again and again, democracy and war don't mix and while people fear for their lives and livelihoods, democratic participation and civil society are not an option.

As for making the world a safer place, well, definitions vary but however you define it and however much you stretch it, it hasn't happened.
And now they are withdrawing. Leaving behind them chaos, violence and destruction. Being none the wiser as to what it was that made the world so unsafe and so terrifying in 2001 and since.
We still don't understand so we still cannot prevent.
Meanwhile yet another country is left with smouldering piles of debris, fear and anguish.

I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like an improvement on the general state of the world to me. And until we realise that violence breeds violence and fear breeds pain and anger, we are not going to get very far fixing the mess we are in.
Bombing it didn't fix it.
Withdrawing from it won't fix it.
Somewhere in-between must be another way, the way that makes peace an option. We just need to stop shooting long enough before we start packing to figure it all out.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

European History X.

If I say 'the extreme right is on the rise in Europe' what comes to mind?

Neo-nazi gangs on the rampage, xenophobic orators and angry mobs, racist slogans, fear and violence? Ed Norton as Derek Vinyard running through European backstreets and various renditions of the famous teeth-on-sidewalk scene? Ed Furlong bleeding on a bathroom floor and whatnot? Right. Yes. Me too.

Yet, although racist violence is sadly occurring all over Europe, the rise of the ultra-right seems to have taken a more sanitized form this time. Suits and somber rhetoric. Anger has ceded its place to patronising goodwill and the ability to tap straight in the heart of your average euro-Joe-public whose comfort zone has shifted sharply to the right and who is eager for a politician who will defend him and his.

The latest EU election brought in more openly nationalistic candidates than ever before. And what should have been a contradiction in terms – anointing an insular nationalist to represent you in a multi-national institution – is a fact. Europe is moving to the Right.

Social scientists are not surprised. High immigration levels, a global financial crisis and rising unemployment are invariably a bad cocktail. In times of crisis scapegoating becomes a team sport and the more different you look the more likely you are to be blamed for whatever is going wrong in your vicinity.
Rationality doesn't come into it. Just as the Jews were single-handedly responsible for both capitalism and communism in the eyes of Nazi propagandists in the 30s and 40s, similarly, your scapegoat of choice is to blame for poverty, unemployment, crime, pollution and the demise of the welfare state. Add to that the appeal of blaming Europe for anything you can't directly blame your government for and what you have is a full-bodied nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-EU movement sweeping across Europe.

Now this is bad news in itself. The EU as a set of institutions evolved from a pan-European need, post World War II, to marshal all existing resources and cross-border institutions and fuse them into the ultimate bastion against fascism. The vision was one of pluralism, inclusion and openness. And, no, ultra-rightists didn't feature in this plan. There was no role for them in this scenario, no place at the table.

But now they have turned up for dinner and the question is what do you do with them?
You can ignore them. Pretend they are not there, hope they go away. That is what Britain did a few days ago when a government champagne reception for the country's 72 MEPs pointedly excluded the BNP's Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons. NFI-ed. There. That restores the cosmic balance and, if asked, we'll roll our eyes and say that the weakness of our first-past-the-post electoral system is that localised support can occasionally see a very unlikely candidate elected. We do assure you all, however, that there is no wider sociological significance to this election.
Thus goes the official British line.

Only there is no denying there is a wider sociological significance to this election and that significance is EU-wide. Ultra-right parties are on the rise. Ultra-right priorities are on the ascendency. Ultra-right language is in common use.

And here we are trying to figure out What Is To Be Done.

In France and Belgium the main parties have their routine worked out. When unsavoury right-wing elements attract popular support, the system colludes to keep them out. I personally kind of like that but, let's not kid ourselves, it is undemocratic to the extreme. The people have spoken, it seems to suggest, but they are talking gibberish so we'll ignore them for now until they talk sense.

But how will they talk sense if you change nothing in the way they live and the way they learn? Change is needed but change takes time and time is at a premium so rather than hatching long-term social strategy, our leaders simply ignore the misguided populace and hope for the best. Meanwhile they don't even bother to lead by example. On the contrary, they make the most of a bad situation, neutralising the bad guys or simply playing ball with them and giving themselves a popularity boost in the bargain.

Sarkozy in France, Berlusconi in Italy and sadly many others across Europe 'neutralise' the ultra-right by borrowing their language, embracing their agenda and stealing their supporters. That is seen as 'sanitizing' the extreme right because the unsavoury individuals are kept away from power, the people are kept in check – and meanwhile the mainstream is suffused with the language of antagonism, exclusion, insularity.
Le Pen was kept away from office even though he recently garnered 47% of the vote. And before you say that a small injury to democracy protects the essence of la Marianne, let me remind you that Sarkozy's social and immigration policies only differ from Le Pen's in one thing: tone.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia the extreme right are colonising Parliament en masse. They know the tricks. They speak the right language and respect the law. They do not advocate violence, they do not incite pogroms. But they are using the institutions they have access to – domestic and European – to 'protect', to close, to limit, to measure, in short to push forth the agenda of the extreme right clad in a language of understanding and evenness.

The extreme right has had a make-over. Derek Vinyard is nobody's poster child anymore. The face of the extreme right wears a suit and speaks the polished and value-neutral language of power. They are here, they mean business and they have a following. And it's that last bit that nobody seems to be dealing with. Their following.

According to the Guardian the new European Parliament sports 'Hungarian gypsy-haters, French Holocaust deniers, Dutch Islam-baiters, Austrian antisemites, Italian racists, and Flemish separatists, as well as Griffin, for whom Islam is a cancer and who wants boats of illegal immigrants sunk at sea'.
And editorial after editorial laments the existence of these parties. And nobody speaks of their voters. Because those who berate the ultra-rightists never fail to canvass their voters when elections near.

Co-optation, collaboration or Berlusconi's 'big tent' party are nice ways of saying that the mainstream is happy to get into bed with the ultra-right if it means getting more votes. Berlusconi's party has thus embraced latter-day fascists and anti-muslim groups such as the highly racist Northern League. Similarly, in Poland the opposition Law and Justice party has risen to prominence by, among other things, embracing antisemitic, anti-German and ultra-Catholic messages. Across Europe, in national and European elections the Right carries the day. It may be disguised, sanitized or in-your-face, ultimately it makes little difference as when it comes to the bottom line in questions of immigration, social policy, European integration, welfare, law and order and nationalism the flavour is the same.

Europe is moving to the right because its voters will it and its politicians make it happen.

It is a bit late in the day to be wondering what is to be done. Especially when those wondering are the same people riding the wave of change and benefiting from the electoral maths of an ever-increasing insularity among Europe's voters.

Europe is turning to the Right.
That's because politicians are leading and voters are following.
That's because voters are demanding it and politicians are complying.

Europe is taking itself to the Right.
And nobody is to blame but us.
And nothing can be done unless we do it.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Afghanistan is a war, not a country

Afghanistan is a forgotten country.
We all know where it is but most of us forget what it is. To most people, Afghanistan is a war. A policy point. A problem.
US democratisation initiatives try to remind us that Afghanistan used to be a country, that there is future after the war. The problem is, whatever the future holds post-war, Afghanistan has been at war for so long that there is little left that could be called a country and what is still there, is at war.

Where does this story begin? With the Americans arriving five years ago? With the Taliban taking power? With the Soviets? When was Afghanistan not at war? When was it last just a country? And how does this story end?

For many Westerners the war has lost its newness 'oh yeah, that's still going on, isn't it?' is not an uncommon reaction. Yet with more troops pouring into the country than ever before, there is no end in sight. As Afghanistan heads into elections – in a desperate pretense of normality – 4,000 US marines arrived in Afghanistan's troublesome Helmand province a few days ago. This is the biggest offensive since the war began. Surely there are now enough marines on the ground to completely flood Helmand's poppy fields and kill two birds with one stone: chase the Taliban out of the area and end opium production. Regime change and crop change in one fell swoop.

Guns and money should do it.
Guns will drive out the bad guys.
Money will pay for the roads that will allow consumer crops to be taken to market before they rot, pay the blood bondage that keeps many farmers tied to opium barons and pay cash incentives for the switch from the very profitable poppy to something far less profitable albeit more benign.
Guns will persuade the undecided. And the drug barons. Maybe.
Then when Afghanistan goes back to being a country, ideas of social responsibility, legality, social and agricultural development can be debated.
Trying to discuss those now, while the war is raging seems like a cruel joke. Pretending normality is simply lurking, pretending the war has not obliterated everything that used to be Afghanistan, for better or for worse.

Everything apart from the Taliban, that is.

Marines are now combing villages in areas that were until recently held by insurgents. The latest offensive is reputed to have met with little resistance. But that is not because the insurgents gave up. It is because the insurgents slipped away. Again. And the 'boundaries' moved. Again. And the Taliban retreated across the border to Pakistan, again, because Pakistan failed to up numbers and simply deployed the existing, insufficient garrisons. Again.

Same old then?
Well not exactly. There is some variation. NATO has put more emphasis on protecting the locals rather than killing the bad guys on this occasion. If it works, they'll stick with this model. Keeping them alive, you see, is the first step to convincing them we mean well. Next step – which is what the marines are working on now – is to persuade them we really are there to stay, the Taliban are not coming back and it is safe to vote in the upcoming presidential elections. Only problem? It's been five years that the Americans have been fighting the Taliban and, although still 'there' in large geographical terms, US forces have not always managed to successfully hold onto territory. What is now the domain of the marines tomorrow could be back in the hands of the Taliban. So although the marines are promising secure civic participation now, will they still be around tomorrow? Or will the Taliban be back, killing everyone who voted in the election against their explicit warning?
Do that and I'll kill you, say the Taliban wielding their guns. That's pretty persuasive. The Marines' job is to say 'don't mind them, we'll keep you safe'. But how convincing is that?

Captain Bill Pelletier stressed that there had been no civilian casualties or damage to property, no artillery, aerial bombings or other indirect fire in a long time. Read: things are improving. But is this progress enough for the Afghans to believe the Taliban are not coming back? After 5 years of inconclusive confrontations, what would it take for people to believe? And why would people risk their lives to vote in an election that means nothing, as what passes for their country now is a set of half-baked structures propped up by the US? Why risk your life to be a citizen of a war when the very war isn't even yours?

'Afghanistan' is not a country. It is a bloody conflict, a losing battle, shorthand for all the questions US decision makers forgot to ask before engaging.
'On s'engage, puis on voit' didn't work for Napoleon and it didn't work for Bush. So it makes sense if the Afghans themselves are reluctant to put their lives in the hands of US marines who, as an army should, can always resort to a tactical retreat if the Taliban return and things get ugly. This is a war, after all.
Only for some it's also home. Ravaged, unsafe but still home. Tactical retreat is not an option.

The US may be realising this. They have shifted their strategy, confirms military strategist Anthony Cordesman. They now seek to hold onto territory and build lasting security. Right. And what was the strategy before? Lose territory and wreak havoc?

Naturally that's not what Cordesman means. US forces have proved time and again that they can win battles. They have also proved (time and again) that they cannot hold territory or win over and keep the loyalty of the population. They need to provide security, create economic opportunity, minimize Taliban influence and battle the fear of what the Taliban will do to 'collaborators' were they to come back in order to start 'holding on' to what their guns can win them. Then and only then will 'reconstruction' make sense.

This is not rocket science.
We know this. We've known it for five years. We've been talking about it for five years. They have been talking about it for five years. So they have either been lying about their intention to really do it all this time or we need to face the simple fact that they just can't do it. Maybe it just can't be done. Not this way. Not by these people. Not right now.

Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, begs to differ. 'This is a very specific example of fighting for democracy' he told the Guardian. Really?
Whose democracy? Your democracy ain't there and Afghanistan doesn't have a democracy. And that's not the way to get one either. Democracy requires stable institutions and basic freedoms, it can therefore not exist in wartime. It also necessitates grass roots participation and public engagement so it cannot be offered as a gift by an external party. Especially if said external party is wearing camouflage gear.

We occupy land so people can register for the election in August, say the marines. We protect the civilians, even if it means avoiding confrontation with the Taliban.
In other words we fight the war by not fighting the battles. And we play at citizenship, when the country is dormant.

Don't get me wrong. I'd love for the war to stop right now. For all wars to stop right now for good. But what I love and what I know are at odds on this one and what I know is this: you fight a war to win it. Day to day political activity is subjected to martial law and normal liberties are suspended. When you had those to start off with. If you never had them, introducing them during wartime is not stupid. It is hypocritical, a simple case of being seen to be doing something while everything is failing.

Obama has rightly noted that the military solution alone in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. But what he meant was that the military cannot solve the underlying problems the country had before and as a result of the war. He did not mean a non-military solution will solve the problem that is the war. What he didn't say is that the implication of this is that infrastructure development and social healing cannot take place in war time and cannot be carried out by soldiers. Particularly not foreign soldiers.

And herein lies yet another challenge: alongside the 4,000 marines hitting the ground last week there were only 500 Afghan soldiers – a token force if there ever was one. In this war, the Afghans are on the other side or simply on the sidelines, giving the question 'whose war is this' immense poignancy. And while we are focusing on Helmand, the war is raging in the entire country.
'Afghanistan' is still going on. Five years on.

What are the Americans after, what are they fighting for? Does anyone remember any more? The administration has changed, times have changed and what they set out to fight against, fight for has also changed. Yet the war continues and there's no changing the fact that this is the Americans' war. They need to figure out what it is they are fighting for if they are ever going to end it, let alone win it. Democracy and freedom are not theirs to give and they are not why they are there in the first place. Lofty ideals keep troop morale high but values and bayonets don't mix well together.

Afghanistan is a war and it's the Americans war. They should figure it out. They should end it. Then they should leave.
When the soldiers leave, when peace returns, when democracy and liberty become possible even if they remain elusive; when Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans, then it has a chance of being a country again.
Till then, Afghanistan is no country, it is a war and any talk of reconstruction, democratisation and institution-building is simply trying to mask the fact that the war is still going on and it is going rather badly. For all involved.

Friday, 3 July 2009

When in Rome, how about remembering you are a Roman?

What are you up to this summer?
Island hopping? A beach holiday? A cricket tour? Watching Wimbledon? Whisking your underage offspring out to southeast Asia to marry them off to someone they've never met?
I'm only asking because, if that's your plan, the authorities are onto you.
Apparently teachers, doctors and the police have been given guidelines to help them 'identify and tackle the problem of forced marriage' now that forced marriage season is upon us. That's right, summer holiday is peak time for children to be taken to south Asia and forced to marry, says the British government. That makes sense, doesn't it? You don't want the sudden end of innocence and trust to mess with the underage bride's education.

But obviously this is no laughing matter.

According to recent figures released by the National Centre for Social Research more than 5,000 people are at risk of forced marriage each year. In Britain. The research is trying to stay neutral – to avoid accusations of Islamophobia – but the fact is that the vast majority of those 5,000 'people' are girls born to Muslim families of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. That said, the research also has to stay neutral because their data is shaky and hard to obtain. For instance. The Centre believes that between 5,000 and 8,000 cases of forced marriage were reported in England in 2008 alone.
First thought: fucking hell that's a lot.
Second thought: if these forced marriages are reported, how can you be estimating in the first place, surely it's a hard number. Plus how on earth can you have a margin of error of this magnitude? 3,000 incidents is hardly a case of 'give or take a couple'.

Why on earth can we not count these incidents properly?
Part of it is because the people dealing with these incidents don't always understand what they are up against. And part of it is that those dealing with these issues, well, they'd rather they didn't have to.

The research found that there is a distinct lack of understanding among statutory service providers making the problem harder to spot. When is a marriage a forced marriage? Who needs to report it to make it real? If the bride bows her head and goes along with it yet her cousins call the authorities, is the marriage consensual? If the wedding takes place in another country, is it still our problem?
And isn't it altogether easier to put all this unpleasantness in the 'ethnic' box, plead 'cultural sensitivities' and let the whole thing carry on in that grey space of 'cultural practices' in which coexistence flirts with the ghetto?

Although schools have been instructed to be on alert, many are reluctant to look into this issue for fear of being accused of being disrespectful towards other cultures. Is that a true fear? Is that an excuse used by school staffers who do not want to have to deal with this? Is it a convenient shield for fathers who want to determine their children's fate in a country whose legislation does not permit it? And who should back down first in what starts as a conversation over a small girl's future and before you know it becomes a grand debate over multiculturalism? Well. That depends. On whether you care more about the epistemology of the question or the little girl.

Let me put it another way: Whose problem is it that underage girls are being married off against their will and before the legal age of consent?
If you ask me, I'd say this problem, like all others, belongs to those who cause it and those who can solve it. Those who cause it don't want to fix it on this occasion. And those who can solve it wash their hands on grounds of culture.
The government spokesmen are trying very hard to be firm in their opposition to forced marriages whilst not dismissing any religion or culture, coming up with the following gem in the process ' there is no culture, and there is no religion in which forced marriage […] is acceptable'.
I'll give you the religion bit, Mr spokesman, with the caveat that no religion embraces forced marriage in its pure doctrinal form. Because all religions have at some point condoned and many have embraced forced marriages in practice. And although I salute this commitment to wooliness, I'm afraid there are numerous cultures in which forced marriages are acceptable by default, because familial hierarchy means that daughters in particular (but also children in general) are not equipped with independent judgment or volition and decisions are to be made by the head of the household, family, clan or tribe for the good of all.
That's cultural. Not how we do things here. But how things are done elsewhere. Culture.
Culture is not all jingly anklets, lantern festivals and pinning money on the bride, you see.
Culture entails prohibitions and imperatives, duties and invisible lines of command. Every culture.
And in some cultural settings it is acceptable to marry off underage girls to people their families have chosen for them. In fact, in many cultural settings from South America to Africa and from Eastern Europe through Asia, this is hardly shocking. Not here. But elsewhere. The difference is that here 770 girls have already reached out to the Forced Marriage Unit this year. And it is feared that many more are too scared of their parents to pick up the phone, go to the police, speak to a teacher – in short, too scared to use the legal framework that exists and is on their side. They are here. And yet they are not.

But those who call, what do you think they say on the phone? Please sir can you protect me without antagonising my dad and insulting my culture? If not, forget about it and thanks for trying.
Or do you think they may be saying the exact opposite: I was born here and I was raised here and I used to think I belonged here. So if I am one of yours, regardless of creed and colour, why are you not making sure your laws apply to me when I need them most?

All I'm saying is their dads have forgotten about the old adage 'when in Rome'. Despite the laws and the discourse of freedom, their dads have forgotten to act like the Romans would.
What about the Romans?

Friday, 26 June 2009

Broken record day: Credit crunch yourself

Today is a broken record day, you've been warned.

Repeat after me: Greece does not have a credit crunch. And again. And again. Now say it like you mean it. There is no credit crunch: The fact that you live in the midst of a crisis does not mean that your crisis is either glamorously 'made in the USA' or someone else's fault.
I know I've said it before, but after 9 solid days of hearing Greeks bemoan 'the international crisis' it's obvious that when I last said it nobody was listening.

You hear it on the Greek news: 'Greece is in the grip of a global credit crunch'. You hear it in the shops. Even the baker near my parents bemoaned the credit crisis. Apparently it was to blame for the reduced profiteroles sales. Even though profiteroles don't sell well in summer. Ever.
But everyone wants a share of the misery pie that is the crisis. It gives everyone a reason to moan and we all love a good moan. It gives everyone a reason to ask for reductions to commercial rent, retail prices, hotel bills. And it gives the authors of Greece's actual crisis (because as we've said before, it does have one) a perfect excuse to hide behind. Not only is this crisis not our fault, not only is it not in our power to resolve it but all the cool kids have the same crisis too.

Well. Not quite.
The cool kids have an actual credit crunch courtesy of American bankers who over-leveraged and decided, to put it as simply as it deserves to be put, that the unemployed and the under-employed living in trailer parks were not likely to default on their rent or mortgage payments and buying up that risk would make a good product for their clients. My seven-year old cousin could tell you what would happen next: the bottom of the food chain did what it was always going to do (it defaulted) and the repackaged financial products that transferred parceled-up risk across the globe made a single mother's rent woes a global financial headache. Apply the same model to repackaged credit card debt and you have a lot of corporate bankers feeling stupid and a lot of their clients losing serious amounts of money.

Now these financial products are created and consumed within a rather narrow (large but still narrow) community of financial services players, all of whom are big corporate entities and not individuals. In other words, this crisis was internal to the system that caused it and could have stayed there. But that would have pretty much killed the system in its present form and would have hurt the people who run and benefit from it, so it didn't stay there. It was shared out and we all got to feel the pain. First the pain was shared with the rest of their organizations and, though their commercial banking sections, with the public. And we all got to join in the fun.

First it was our mortgages. Then it was residential rent prices. Then it was interest rates. Then it was salary freezes and job cuts. Then it was consumer goods and everything else you can think of.

What was the alternative, you ask?
The only alternative would have been for the whole financial services community, globally, to go down in flames. Corporations would lose money, financial products would lose all credibility, the financial services sector would self-combust and stop selling hot air (futures, options, repackaged debt) thus causing massive unemployment in the financial sector and all those servicing said sector. We would have had a crisis then as well. But we would have had the right kind of crisis and the system would have purged itself, possibly into extinction. Now we are all counting our pennies and the way banking is carried out is largely unchanged.

Is it simplistic to suggest that they could have protected the consumer from feeling the pinch? Yes, slightly. But given the choice between sharing the pain or losing not just their jobs and their bonuses but also their entire industry, big banks decided to engage in some displacement activity. Anything else would have involved radical change in the banking sector and who wants that? Not the boys in the big offices. So the pain was shared out and, before you know it, everyone is feeling the pinch. Retail spending goes down and marketing shifts to adjust to the new patterns. Advertising is withdrawn so newspapers are slashing journalists' jobs; bankers and lawyers are being sacked so the sandwich shops, dry cleaners' and retail units all around their offices are shutting down too, for lack of custom; financial services businesses are cutting costs and the support staff (cleaners, receptionists, maintenance staff and canteen workers) made redundant go on the dole, become exempt from paying council tax for a while and, before you know it, councils are slashing mother and toddler aqua classes, teachers' posts and your second rubbish collection every week.

Of course it's a cycle.
Of course Greece is part of the global cycle of woe, doom and gloom.
But the credit crunch hit Greece in a localised and specific manner. Mortgages were affected. But the percentage of Greeks carrying a mortgage is tiny compared to the rest of Europe. Shipping was affected, but that is a small and self-contained community. Import-exports were affected and that spilled into retail. Tourism was affected but we are yet to feel the after-shock for that one.

But was your Joe Public affected? No. Because his salary was so low already and the cost of living so high already that he hardly felt the additional spike. Now he's told it's all down to the credit crunch and he buys it because there is a global credit crunch and it's affecting the whole world so why not us? And if we haven't caused it, we can't fix it so the government can sit on its ass while the few businesses that are benefiting from this all are pushing prices higher and higher and salaries lower and lower.

It's a good plan. Only there is a flaw in it that will become apparent when the credit crunch passes, because it will at some point, and the Greek financial crisis remains. And remain it will because it has nothing to do with the credit crunch and everything to do with public mismanagement of tax revenue, high unemployment and under-employment, low salaries crippling the spending power of an entire generation, insufficient public investment, an ailing agricultural sector and dying manufacturing.

Add to that a banking sector that is almost entirely outside state control and effective scrutiny thus managing to get away with the biggest differential between interest rates on loans and interest rates on savings in the whole of Europe. One has to wonder who pockets the difference. I guess it's the same someone who benefits from the numerous repossessions, unlawful banking charges and other benefits brought to you by the small print that keeps being challenged by domestic and European courts to no avail.

This is not a global tsunami. This crisis has everything to do with Greece.
It has everything to do with unfair taxation, targeting those who don't tax evade and crippling them. It has everything to do with non-existent fiscal policy, with empty coffers and no ideas. And I mean no ideas. The government's latest money-making scheme is to tax mobile phone usage, per minute. Credit crunch that.

This crisis has everything to do with an economy that has not been properly tended since the military experiment of the 60s and 70s ended, and anything that is left untended goes to hell. If you use and abuse it on top, it goes to hell even faster.

So crisis? Yes.
Credit crunch? No.
And as the problems will persist even after the credit crunch goes, what I want to know is this: when the rest of the world has recovered and our home-grown crisis is still going strong, what are we going to call it then, to avoid having to deal with it?

Thursday, 25 June 2009

One lovely blog, it's official

Start spreading the news: I was just given the 'one lovely blog' award by my friend Fri who is obviously a kind and charitable soul and sees through the fire and brimstone posts, through the anger and the rants to the soul within. For that I thank her and will wear my award proudly on my cyber-sleeve.

Here is the deal though.
An award is a joy to be shared and once you've accepted your award you are in turn empowered to grant 15 awards to 15 lovely blogs. So if you are on my list below do the following:

1. Accept your award – a speech thanking the academy is optional.
2. Select 15 adorable blogs and give them their award
3. Let the lucky ones know they have been chosen

That's it. Hardly taxing!

So, lovely people, here it is...
Singling out 15 blogs is actually not an easy job. My original shortlist was about 60 strong. Oops.
So here comes my disclaimer: if you are not on my list it's not because I love you any less. Honest. But considering I can only choose 15 this time, in no particular order the winners are:

Leviathan , Thanos , Colourful mind , Forada St'Aloni, Dorothea , Polyvios , Haris, El Romandante, Zinaa Kapa, Viky Papaprodromou, Polykarpos, Tyler Durden, Ftylos, Candiru, Zirzirikos

Again special thanks to Fri.

And thank you, wonderful people, who read, write and comment in this wondrous space that is the blogosphere; a space that seems to atract and keep more intelligence and commitment than any other communication sphere. Habermas would have been proud. And that's a very good thing.

Peace and I'm out.