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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Maxppp)

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, European Parliament, Strasbourg (Maxppp)

There has been a torrent of tributes of late to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who has announced that he will not be running for reelection to the European Parliament next month, signaling, in effect, his retirement from electoral politics. I am, needless to say, a big fan of Dany’s, adhering to his political positions 93% of the time and to his values, world-view, and spirit a full 100%. He’s great, c’est tout ce que je peux dire à son sujet (for those on the hard left who despise him—who call him a sell-out, or worse—, they can just go bugger off). Cohn-Bendit has been a fixture in the European Parliament for the past twenty years—elected with the German Die Grünen 1994 and 2004, with Les Verts/EELV in 1999 and 2009 (his heading the French lists causing their scores to spike)—, the veritable conscience of that body, and a fierce defender of the European project. Le Monde, in an online piece on Wednesday on DCB’s two decades as MEP, linked to videos of some of his more memorable interventions in recent years during plenary sessions in Strasbourg. They’re great. As the LM piece will eventually disappear behind the paywall, here are the vids:

Dany giving his farewell speech on Wednesday.

Dany reprimanding Martin Schulz in 2010 for voting to approve the Barroso Commission—and telling him ta gueule! i.e. STFU, while he was at it (no hard feelings from Schulz, who is a good guy himself).

Dany verbally pummeling Victor Orbán in 2012 and to his face.

Dany giving President Hollande a hard time in 2013, and addressing him in the familiar form.

Dany letting Jean-Marie Le Pen have it in 2011, after the latter’s scandalous reaction to the Utoya massacre in Norway.

Dany in 2012 telling the Earl of Dartmouth—UKIP MEP—a few home truths (and in English).

Daniel Cohn-Bendit is sui generis. As I’ve already said twice, he’s great. Brussels and Strasbourg will be diminished without him.

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[update below]

Pascal Riché has an important article in Rue89 on the growing debate in France over quitting the euro and the arguments for and against, and which he advises people to familiarize themselves with—”Entraînez-vous au débat qui déchirera vos dîners dans quelques semaines” he says—, as the debate will no doubt rise to a fever pitch during the election campaign for the European Parliament (May 25th in France). Riché notes that, until recently, most French critics of the ECB’s monetary policy and the SGP nonetheless argued that the euro was a net plus for France and that exiting from it was unthinkable. The only ones arguing otherwise—that France should and must quit the euro—have been the Front National, souverainistes like Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, extreme left groupuscules, and a handful of economists (the usual suspects on this subject, e.g. Jean-Jacques Rosa, Jacques Sapir). But Riché now observes that the arguments for leaving the euro are going mainstream, noting in particular the revirement on the question by the high-profile Keynesian economist Bernard Maris, an irreducible partisan of Europe—he voted ‘oui’ in both the TEU and ECT referendums—, but who has regretfully come to the conclusion that France has no hope of increasing economic growth and lowering unemployment so long as it remains in the single currency dominated as it by Germany. I was indeed surprised to hear Maris—of whom I am a fan—make this argument last Friday in his weekly debate on France Inter with the libéral/free-market economics journalist Dominique Seux, and equally surprised to hear Seux’s tepid counter-argument, in which he conceded many of Maris’s points (listen here). And this morning on France Inter I listened to invited guest Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who argued for six minutes straight why the euro has been disastrous for the French economy and that the only salvation for France is to exit from it. Some of Dupont-Aignan’s points were exaggerated or simplistic but he is exceptionally well-spoken and his argumentation is coherent (listen here); and it will certainly be convincing to many citizens who are otherwise not right-wing Eurosceptics or nostalgics for a Gaullist golden age.

IMHO the arguments for staying in the euro are still stronger than those for leaving—the consequences of which could indeed be calamitous—but my convictions on this are becoming shaky. It is, however, clear that the single currency was an error—and that having it run according to German conditions was a double error. I cannot imagine for a second that President Hollande or any of his credible successors would ever make such a fateful decision to leave the euro. But if the euro remains overvalued and France continues to privilege deficit reduction over economic growth, then the economic and social situation in this country is going to get worse, and with political and social consequences one can only imagine.

À suivre.

UPDATE: French News Online informs me—in the comments below—that they had a story back on Feb. 7th on how “The French want out of the euro.” In other words, FNO scooped me and by a long shot. J’en prends acte.

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Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

That’s the title (in English) of a good 80 minute documentary, “Populisme, l’Europe en danger,” that aired last night on ARTE’s weekly news magazine, Thema. It takes up four cases, the first—and the most disquieting, IMO— being Beppe Grillo and his Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) in Italy (which I had a post on a couple of years ago, comparing it to the 1950s Poujadist movement in France). I find the M5S disquieting in view of its electoral strength—25% in the 2012 legislative elections, and whose support is apparently holding steady in the polls—and the real problems this is posing to the Italian political system given the big bloc of seats it has in both chambers of parliament, the dictatorial manner in which Grillo runs the movement, and the manifest anti-democratic—if not downright fascistic—undercurrent in his discourse and general world-view. The parallel with Mussolini was indeed suggested toward the end of the segment.

The second report is on the French Front National, with a focus on its municipal election campaign in Forbach (Moselle), a dying industrial town in the Lorraine and which the FN, via its high-profile mayoral candidate there—the énarque and party vice-president Florian Philippot—, had high hopes of winning (but didn’t). One interesting bit of information in the segment concerns the FN’s decision not to endorse or formally participate in the big anti-gay marriage movement of last spring, despite this being supported by the near totality of its traditional voter base (and with FN voters no doubt taking part in the demos in large numbers; for my one post on the French gay marriage issue, go here). The reason: Marine Le Pen did not want to jeopardize her budding alliance with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

A report on Wilders follows the one on the FN. He and his party, the PVV—which speaks for some 10-15% of the Dutch electorate—, are a new kind of right-wing populist movement: liberal/libertarian on societal issues (notably on sexuality), economically free-market (though this is being watered down), and aiming its fire at Islam. Wilders’s Islamophobia—a neologism I don’t like but which is apt in his case—is well known and hardly needs explication, except to mention that this has enabled Wilders to avoid formally stigmatizing Muslims qua Muslims or to speak about immigration more generally. A clever sleight of hand. The ARTE report says that Wilders could eventually become prime minister, which I doubt. His latest dérapage probably hasn’t enhanced his prospects here, that’s for sure.

The final report is from Hungary, on the neo-Naziish Jobbik—which received a shocking 20.5% of the vote in last Sunday’s legislative election—and, above all, Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz, which took 44.5% (a drop of 8% from the 2010 election), though with 67% of the national assembly seats. The dérive autoritaire in Hungary has been written about extensively—e.g. see the 5-part series by Princeton University’s Kim Lane Scheppele, published in February on Paul Krugman’s blog. That the European Union has failed to take decisive action against Hungary is an absolute scandal. Then again, the reason for this inaction—as the report makes fairly clear—may have to do with the critical support offered to Orbán inside the EU’s institutions, his Fidesz being a member of the European Parliament’s current majority party, the European People’s Party (EPP), and whose other constituents include the German CDU, the French UMP, and the Spanish PP—not to mention European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s home party, the Portuguese PSD.

This underscores the importance of next month’s elections to the European Parliament, of depriving the EPP of a majority and preventing the establishment of a parliamentary group by an alliance of far right-wing populist parties led by Le Pen and Wilders.

The documentary may be viewed on ARTE’s website here through next Tuesday.

Marine Le Pen & Geert Wilders, The Hague, November 13 2013

Marine Le Pen & Geert Wilders, The Hague, November 13 2013

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

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I initially had no interest in seeing this—the trailer didn’t hook me at all; not my kind of movie, even though I thought that the one other film I’d seen by Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom,” was pretty good—but in view of the stellar reviews on both sides of the Atlantic plus the gushing recommendation from friends and colleagues, decided what the hell, so I went with a friend two evenings ago. And it’s not bad at all. Agreeably entertaining, droll, offbeat characters and an A-list cast… On passe un bon moment. But its Adventures of Tintin portrait of the Old Europe has a more somber side, as Wes Anderson was influenced by the work Stefan Zweig, who witnessed Europe’s descente aux enfers during the calamitous decade of the 1930s and committed suicide in 1942. Voilà a few articles on this aspect of the film:

Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ Promises to Make Americans Rediscover the Books of Stefan Zweig,” by Jason Diamond, in Flavorwire (February 7th).

‘I stole from Stefan Zweig’: Wes Anderson on the author who inspired his latest movie,” in The Telegraph (March 8th). The lede: As his film The Grand Budapest Hotel hits cinemas, Wes Anderson talks to George Prochnik about its inspiration, the early 20th century Austrian author Stefan Zweig.

Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson, and a longing for the past,” by Richard Brody, in The New Yorker (March 14th).

Wes Anderson’s Elegy to Stefan Zweig,” by Max Nelson, in the Los Angeles Review of Books (March 14th).

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[update below] [2nd update below]

This is my first post on the NSA/Edward Snowden brouhaha, which I have admittedly not been following extremely closely. Lots of headlines, a newspaper article read to the end here and there, reports on the TV and radio news, that’s about it. Certain gauchiste FB friends have gotten all bent out of shape over the affair, poussant des cris d’orfraie, announcing that they will henceforth be encrypting their emails (as if anyone could care less what they have to say about anything), etc etc. I abstractly understand that there may be constitutional and civil liberties issues at stake here but don’t personally feel concerned by it, as I just don’t care if the NSA is logging my emails and records of my phone calls along with trillions of others. A couple of grains of sand on a long stretch of coastline. I have no illusions about the potential—indeed the present-day ability—of the US government to behave arbitrarily and/or in a repressive manner, but don’t see it being realized through electronic surveillance. And what does privacy mean nowadays anyway? If I have anything really confidential to tell someone, I’m certainly not going to do it via email or social networks, NSA PRISM or not. I’m sorry but Big Brother just doesn’t worry me.

But I have now been compelled to read into the NSA/Snowden business, as a couple of students in a Master’s course I teach will be doing a class presentation on the subject tomorrow (they proposed it). So I have had to inform myself and particularly on the European angle—being in France and the students French—and the revelations of the NSA’s surveillance of Angela Merkel’s and other European leaders’ phone calls. Of the numerous articles and analyses I’ve read on this aspect of the affair, the one I’ve found the most useful is by ex-CIA case officer Reuel Marc Gerecht in TWS, “When to spy on our friends: The NSA in Europe.” As he argues, it is not only normal that America should spy on its friends—as the friends spy on America—but there are excellent reasons to do so, and this includes eavesdropping on the communications of allied leaders, who may be engaged in their own dealings, sometimes shady, with non-allies (e.g. Gerhard Schröder with the Russians); pursing particular policies that may collide with those of the US; or may be penetrated themselves by enemy intelligence services (remember Günter Guillaume?). European allies know this, which is why their publicly indignant reactions after the latest revelations are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Gerecht also had a good piece in June on the American side of the issue, “The costs and benefits of the NSA: The data-collection debate we need to have is not about civil liberties.” Gerecht nails it in these two articles, IMO.

Jennifer Sims of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs echoes Gerecht in a good piece on the Foreign Affairs website last week, “I Spy… Why allies watch each other.”

French physicist and former research director at the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique, Jacques Villain, had a salutary op-ed in the October 25th Le Monde, informing the reader that “Les Etats-Unis n’ont jamais cessé d’espionner la France.” But France, so he reminds us, has seriously spied on the United States as well. Ce qui est tout à fait normal.

It is also tout à fait normal for Europeans and everyone else to try to protect themselves from the NSA’s mega-vacuuming of their metadata—as this analysis in today’s NYT explicates—, notably by working to break America’s near total control of the Internet.

Stephen Walt had a good post on his Foreign Policy blog last week as to whether or not the US is getting its money’s worth with the NSA spying—that can justify the massive resources consecrated to it (and that offsets diplomatic problems generated by revelations of the NSA’s reach). And last June Walt had a blog post spelling out “The real threat [to Americans] behind the NSA surveillance programs.” Ordinary Americans may not have much to worry about but potential government whistle blowers, investigative journalists, and the like may indeed need to worry.

Eric Posner, in a review essay in TNR, “Before you reboot the NSA, think about this: The paradox of reforming the secrecy-industrial complex,” ponders how to implement effective institutional oversight of the NSA. The book under review is Princeton political scientist Rahul Sagar’s Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, which looks to be the one to read on the topic.

In this vein, Jeffrey Rosen wrote an op-ed for Le Monde, “PRISM, un défi pour le droit,” on NSA espionage and what judicial recourse may be available to French citizens.

Affaire à suivre.

ADDENDUM:  It turns out that I had a post on the NSA affair back in July. Totally forgot about it.

UPDATE: Le Monde has a page 2 article, dated November 29th, entitled “La France, précieux partenaire de l’espionnage de la NSA.”

2nd UPDATE: The National Interest has a piece, dated December 4th, on “Why we must spy on our allies.” The author, Elbridge Colby, served with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and with the President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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EU Profiler

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Last year I linked to the Politest: le test pour se positionner politiquement, i.e. the test to see where one is situated politically in France (here, with questions translated into English). There’s a similar test—which I just learned about—, EU Profiler, that was devised for the 2009 elections to the European parliament, that tells which parties one is closest to in all European countries. To take the test, go here (on peut le prendre en français et d’autres langues européennes aussi).

Here are the parties in selected European countries that the EU Profiler informs me I am closet to:

France: PRG followed by PS (my Politest result was the other way around)
UK (England): Liberal Democrats
Germany: SPD
Italy: Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (don’t know a thing about them)
Spain: Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (huh?) followed by PSOE
Greece: PASOK (ugh)
Poland: SLD-UP
Turkey: Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi (don’t know them but they sound sympathique)

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The Brussels Business

Bruxelles-business

For those interested in the EU, today’s New York Times has a must read article on the “Lobbying bonanza as firms try to influence European Union.” American public relations and law firms are heavily involved, and importing Washington/K Street practices to Brussels—and with all that that implies in terms of $$$ and legalized corruption.

On this precise subject, there is an excellent, must see 1½ hour documentary, ‘The Brussels Business‘, that has aired on television in Europe over the past year. It may be watched in its entirety on YouTube here. La version française peut être regardée sur la site web d’ARTE ici ou sur YouTube ici.

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U zemlji krvi i meda

The other day, at one of the universities I teach at, I was chitchatting with an administrative staffer, a naturalized French citizen from Bosnia-Herzegovina (Mostar)—she came to France in the 1990s, in her teens—and who is about to go there for her summer vacation. We talked about the wars in Yugoslavia in the ’90s, particularly in Bosnia, and, as is my wont, I mentioned the movies I’d seen recently on the general subject. One of them, which I caught on DVD last month, was Angelina Jolie’s 2011 ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’, on the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose narrative hook is the relationship between a Serb militiaman and a Bosniak female prisoner he takes under his protection, whom he had met at a Sarajevo nightclub before the war. Reviews for the film were generally positive in both the US and France, though a few were mixed. I thought it was good and tip my figurative hat to Angelina Jolie for making it (and for it being in Serbo-Croatian, a language she doesn’t speak). Now the film is a tad propagandistic and manichean, as the Bosniaks are portrayed as the victims and the Serbs the bad guys. The latter are really evil in the film, even when one or two of them try not to be. But Angelina J.’s portrayal is correct. The Serbs were the bad guys in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They really did murder at will, rape countless women—and the pic is explicit on this—, and behave in a genocidal manner toward the Bosniaks (as even if what happened in B-H in 1992-95 may not qualify stricto sensu as a genocide, the genocidal logic of the Serbs’ démarche can hardly be denied). One would have to be a fanaticized Serbian nationalist—or a deranged Muslimophobic pro-Serb foreigner—to insist otherwise. I won’t say that the film was perfect from beginning to end but I liked the politics and perspective, found the acting good—and particularly the protag, played by Zana Marjanović—, and it more than held my attention. For details, see the review in Salon by Andrew O’Hehir.

Briefly, on two other films from the ex-Yugoslavia seen in recent months (these at the cinema). One was ‘Children of Sarajevo’, by Aida Begić (who lived through the 1992-95 siege). The pic is about a 23-year-old named Rahima (actress Marija Pikić) and her 14-year-old brother, Nedim, who are orphans from the war and fending for themselves in contemporary Sarajevo, she supporting the two of them with a petit boulot. Rahima, one learns, had a dissolute adolescence but has now found religion and wears a headscarf, and is trying to protect her brother from getting into trouble (as he is, notably with a classmate who is the son of a government minister; the corruption of the nouveaux riche ruling class is a theme). It’s a small film, not too bad, but also not essential IMO. Reviews are here, here, and here.

The other one was the Serbian ‘Clip’, by youthful director Maja Miloš. Apparently inspired by the 1995 indie pic ‘Kids’—that I’ve never seen—, it’s set in a trashy, soulless cité in a trashy, soulless town somewhere near Belgrade, about teenage airheads who, when not at their trashy high school, spend their time listening to trashy music, surfing trashy Internet web sites, playing with their cell phones, consuming intoxicating substances, and engaging in porn-inspired sex acts (which are rather explicit). The guys are violence-prone assholes, the girls stupid, and the adults both. I went to see the pic strictly on the recommendation of Le Monde’s thumbs up review. During the thing I was slightly embarrassed to be watching it, wondering why I was subjecting myself to this (not to mention wasting my time), even though the pic is “serious,” has been screened at film fests, and even won awards. The director clearly had a point to make about aimless youth, life in contemporary Serbia, or something. US reviews (mainly positive) are here and here. Chacun son goût.

djeca

klip

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Emine, Tayyip & Angela, Istanbul, March 29 2010  (photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Emine, Tayyip & Angela, Istanbul, March 29 2010
(photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

[update below]

Europe edition.

Reuters had a dispatch on Thursday on “Turkey warn[ing] Germany not to play politics over EU entry talks,” which quotes Turkish EU affairs minister Egemen Bağış trash talking Angela Merkel, who has criticized the Turkish govt’s response to the protest movement

If Mrs Merkel is looking for domestic political material for her elections, that material should not be Turkey…If Mrs Merkel looks into it she will see that those who mess about with Turkey do not have an auspicious end…

Yeah, don’t mess with Turkey. Or else…

The prospect of Turkey joining the EU in the coming decade has been looking increasingly improbable these past two or three years but with this kind of talk—not to mention the fallout of the protests—, I would say the probability has lessened that much further.

And then there’s this report of PM Erdoğan “declar[ing] that foreign-led conspirators he alleges are behind the anti-government movement in his country also are fomenting the recent unrest in Brazil,” with him saying (and I trust the translation of the quote is accurate)

“The same game is now being played over Brazil…The symbols are the same, the posters are the same, Twitter, Facebook are the same, the international media is the same. They (the protests) are being led from the same center…They are doing their best to achieve in Brazil what they could not achieve in Turkey. It’s the same game, the same trap, the same aim.”

One wonders who this “center” is and who “they” are. And if the good Turkish PM doesn’t, by chance, have them in mind…

I think it would be nice for a modern, forward-looking Turkey to join the EU in the next decade—say, on the centennial of the founding of the Turkish republic—, but if this is the prevailing mentality at the summit of the Turkish state, no way. Not a chance.

À propos, Yigal Schleifer has a post on the informative EurasiaNet website asserting that “‘Kneejerk Anti-Westernism’ could complicate Ankara’s foreign policy.” And not only with Europe. Looks like Turkey has gone from having zero problems with its neighbors to having all sorts of problem with them. And with countries that are not its neighbors.

Also à propos, Turkish Policy Quarterly has an article (written before the current protests) by U. of Toronto doctoral candidate Tuba Eldem, “The End of Turkey’s Europeanization?

And if all this weren’t enough, the WSJ’s Moneybeat blog had a downbeat post on Friday on the Turkish economy, saying that “Turkey can’t catch a break.”

À suivre.

UPDATE: Twenty prominent Turkish academicians, artists, and intellectuals have signed a letter (en français) to the foreign affairs ministers of the EU member states—”Un appel des démocrates turcs à l’UE“—calling on the European Council not to freeze Turkey’s accession negotiations to the EU. Turkish liberals—who are with the protest movement to a man and woman—are strongly supportive of Turkey’s EU candidacy and would clearly feel undercut if the prospect of membership were to fade.

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hannah-arendt

The movie. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. It should not be labeled a biopic, as it focuses on only two episodes of Hannah Arendt’s life: of her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial—and the controversy that followed the publication of her articles in The New Yorker—and her youthful relationship with Martin Heidegger (though this part, treated in flashbacks, receives lesser attention). It’s a well done film, impeccably depicts the German émigré academic-intellectual milieu in New York in the early 1960s, and with a first-rate performance by Barbara Sukowa. I wasn’t aware of the extent of the firestorm Arendt’s articles on the Eichmann trail provoked in the American Jewish community. The film clearly takes Arendt’s side (her speech at Bard College, where she defended her intellectual integrity against her detractors, is the high point of the film). French reviews have been good. For reviews in English, see the ones by New School sociologist Jeffrey Goldfarb, feminist blogger Mary Creighton, and Spiegel Online. The film opens in the US at the end of the month. [See update below]

I’ve seen two other films lately on Germany and Nazis. One was ‘Lore’, by Australian director Cate Shortland (the film is in German, though she doesn’t speak it). The film follows the children of a Nazi family—father in the SS, mother a Nazi ideologue—at the end of the war, who are left by their parents to fend for themselves, to make their way on foot to their grandmother’s home near Hamburg, which is a few hundred km to the north from where they set out. The whole movie is of their journey through the countryside—of the children of the Nazi elite reduced to penury and in the sauve qui peut atmosphere of 1945 Germany—, and of their encounter with a young man who passes himself off for a Jew. It’s a good film, particularly for the performance of the remarkable teenage actress Saskia Rosendahl. The pic opened in the US in February and reviews were good.

LORE_Plakat_A1_Layout 1

The other film was ‘Combat Girls’ (in France: ‘Guerrière’; the German title, ‘Kriegerin’, means ‘warrior’), which is about contemporary neo-Nazi skinheads in the former East Germany and with the protag a 20 year-old neo-Nazi woman named Marisa (actress Alina Levshin). The film opens with the neo-Nazi gang marauding through a train physically assaulting anyone of non-European origin. During the scene I asked myself why I was subjecting myself to this, that coming to see the film was maybe a mistake. There is no lower specimen of humanity than neo-Nazis, and having to watch them for an hour and a half on the screen is not pleasant. But it turned out not to be a bad film, as it shows Marisa—who is full of rage and hate—to be a complex character and who is carrying baggage from her difficult family history. And in the link she forms with a teenage refugee from Afghanistan—which at first seemed contrived but finally wasn’t—, she shows herself to have at least an ounce of humanity—and unlike the lowlife reptiles of her neo-Nazi gang, who have none whatever. Reviews of the pic are here and here.

A few days after seeing the film I read this article in Le Monde about a trial of five neo-Nazis that is presently underway in Germany, which is the biggest trial of its kind there since that of the Baader-Meinhof gang in 1977. One learns that 152 murders have been committed by neo-Nazis in Germany, mainly in the east, since reunification in 1990. That’s a lot. Neo-Nazis are marginal in Germany but not as marginal as they should be.

UPDATE: The Jewish Daily Forward has a review essay (May 26th) of ‘Hannah Arendt’ by Beate Sissenich, visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. The concluding paragraph

Anyone with a passing interest in 20th-century social theory will benefit from seeing this film, but no one should expect to receive from it an education in either philosophy or Holocaust history. It succeeds best as a sociology of intellectuals who were grappling with one of the fundamental cataclysms of the 20th century that they themselves had barely escaped — genocide on an industrial scale.

kriegerin

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Margaret Thatcher R.I.P.

margaret thatcher 1983

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below] [9th update below] [10th update below] [11th update below] [12th update below]

I was initially not going to write anything about her passing but seeing that my FB timeline is inundated with posts on her—90% of it vitriol and hate from my numerous gauchiste FB friends—I suppose I should add my 2¢ as well (and no more than that). I was not a Thatcherite, loin s’en faut, disliking her out of gauchiste ideological reflex. But I couldn’t get too worked up over her, as I’m not a Brit, spent all of two weeks in England during her years in power, and was too consumed by my detestation of the Reagan administration to get overly emotional on what was happening across the pond. And I did support her sending the Royal Navy to the Falklands in ’82 (and made no secret of it). Rising to the top of a male-dominated political world when she did and imposing her authority also aroused a certain admiration. I liked Shirley Williams but don’t know if she would have had a chance at the time, even if the UK had had a different electoral system. In this respect, Thatcher was blessed by the first-past-the-post system—the Tories did not receive more than 43% of the vote in any of the elections she won—, the divided opposition, and lack of checks-and-balances in the British system, meaning she had free rein to impose her legislation. And she was especially blessed by the calamitous state of the Trotskyist-infiltrated Labour party and the trade unions, and notably Arthur Scargill’s mine workers. Between Thatcher and Scargill, one had little choice but to tilt toward the former. À propos, Libération has an interview with left-wing French economist Denis Clerc, who, in an otherwise negative assessment of Thatcher’s record, said that Thatcher’s victory in the miners conflict was necessary, as British unions had become a conservative force clinging to an economic model that Britain could no longer sustain.

Mrs. Thatcher may have been hated by British (and US) leftists but French Socialists—who were in power during most of the time she was—had a certain admiration for her (as a leader and interlocutor, if not politically). And François Mitterrand definitely did (saying that she had the eyes of Stalin and the smile of Marilyn Monroe). As for Thatcher’s economic policies, the main thing she did was privatize. So did the French right during the first cohabitation (1986-88). And the Socialists did even more from 1997 onward. But she didn’t privatize the NHS, and the disastrous privatization of British Rail was the doing of John Major. Thatcher also kept the Bank of England under political control. As for her Euroscepticism and opposition to EMU, she had good company in France (Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Charles Pasqua, Philippe Séguin…). On Thatcher’s privatizations, here’s a 1994 academic article by political scientist (and personal friend) Stathis Kalyvas, “Hegemony Breakdown: The Collapse of Nationalization in Britain and France.” And here’s a piece by historian Harold James on “Margaret Thatcher’s Lessons for Europe.” I’ll link to more good stuff I come across.

One thing. All sorts of lefties on FB are asserting that Thatcher called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” in the 1980s. I’ve been trying to find a precise quote and but haven’t been able to, which leads me to think that maybe she never said such a thing about Mandela (as opposed to the ANC, which she did label “terrorist” in the ’80s). She did oppose imposing sanctions on South Africa, which is known, but it seems that she lobbied the apartheid regime to release Mandela. If anyone has specific information on this, do let me know.

ADDENDUM: On the Thatcher biopic ‘The Iron Lady‘, the US reviews of which were mixed, I wrote the following on this blog last June 17th

It’s hard to make a really good biopic. Some succeed, more don’t. This one did not, and despite Meryl Streep’s stellar performance (her Oscar was well-deserved). Too much on Mrs. Thatcher’s descent into Alzheimer’s, not enough on her years in power. The latter was given short shrift in the pic, which I could not understand. Whatever one thinks of Thatcher—and few are neutral on her, politically or on her persona—she was one of the major political figures in the Western world of the past half century. She deserved a better cinematic treatment than this.

French reviews weren’t too positive either. Don’t know how the pic was received in Britain, though leftists—critics and audiences alike—no doubt trashed it.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan, who was a teenage Thatcherite, assesses her legacy here (he calls her a “liberator”).

2nd UPDATE: Paul Krugman asks—with graphs and data—”Did Thatcher turn Britain around?” Answer: insofar as she did, it didn’t happen while she was in office. Bruce Bartlett, in discussing “The legend of Margaret Thatcher,” reminds us that taxes as a share of GDP sharply increased under Thatcher, spending was not reduced, and she left office with the welfare state intact. And like all Brits, she strongly supported the National Health Service. US Republicans take note. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy reminisces on “Maggie and me: how Thatcher changed Britain.” Martin Wolf has a column in the FT on “Thatcher: the great reformer,” in which he observes, entre autres, that Thatcher was a pragmatic politician who showed little interest in embarking on politically suicidal attempts to dismantle the welfare state, and certainly not the NHS, and that public spending never fell below 39% of GDP under her watch. Again, US Republicans take note.

3rd UPDATE: The Guardian has published an epitaph for Mrs. Thatcher written by Hugo Young, a Thatcher biographer (not sympathetic) and longtime Guardian political columnist, days before he died in 2003, “Margaret Thatcher left a dark legacy that has still not disappeared.” Among other things, he had this to say

Thatcherism failed to destroy the welfare state. The lady was too shrewd to try that, and barely succeeded in reducing the share of the national income taken by the public sector. But the sense of community evaporated. There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with. This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn’t care if it happened or not. But it did, and the consequences seem impossible to reverse.

And this

on the subject of Europe, Thatcher became a contradictory figure. She led Britain further into Europe, while talking us further out. Endeavouring to persuade the British into an attitude of hostility to the group with which she spent 11 years deepening their connection must take a high place in any catalogue of anti-statesmanship. This, too, we still live with.

The Washington Post has republished on its website a piece dated December 22 2011 by Thatcher biographer Claire Berlinski (sympathetic), “Five myths about Margaret Thatcher,” in which she says this about Mrs. Thatcher’s European convictions

Yes, she is known as the great Euroskeptic. But the peculiar truth is that for most of her career, she was a passionate advocate of European unification. In 1975, she led the Tory faction of the “Vote Yes” campaign in referendum to determine whether Britain should stay in the Common Market, the precursor to the modern European Union. The Single European Act of 1986, which revised the Treaty of Rome to expand the power of the European Economic Community, as the Common Market was then known, was her initiative.

On the subject of Thatcher and Europe, a friend who worked with the EC/EU for much of his career wrote to me in an email today (April 9) that

One aspect that seems to be missed is the great irony of her career. She was a main driver of the expansion if the EU and turned it into a thoroughly “British” affair (by which I mean driven by free market ideology. She pushed the Single European Act which has done for Europe what the Interstate commerce act did for the US. The SEA created the internal market and caused the number of regulations (loose use of the word) to increase by orders of magnitude.

My friend also added this Anglo-French pun, that apparently never caught on: Thatch = chaume. Thatcher = chaumeur = chômeur. :-D

Re Hugo Young above, the LRB has a lengthy 1989 review by R.W. Johnson of Young’s biography of Thatcher. Also on the LRB website is this 1994 piece by Christopher Hitchens in which he describes being spanked (literally) by Mrs. T.

4th UPDATE: Political scientist Stephen Benedict Dyson has interesting essay, “Margaret Thatcher, her personality and politics,” on the academic website The Monkey Cage. And Anthony Barnett of OpenDemocracy has a piece on “Thatcher and the words no one mentions: North Sea Oil.”

5th UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a blog post on Thatcher’s penchant for regressive taxation, in which he informs us who is “Margaret Thatcher’s true heir“: Bobby Jindal. John Palmer, think tank wonk and former Guardian editor, informs us in the fine website Social Europe Journal that “Margaret Thatcher’s social and economic ‘revolution’ has proved a failure.” Nicolas Gros-Verheyde on the Bruxelles2 blog has a good post on Thatcher’s European convictions. And on NRO, a website I look at as little as possible, Claire Berlinski (supra) is interviewed on why “Thatcher matters.” Claire may be a Thatcherite but is no hack. Her views are nuanced and complex, even if I’m not on the same political page as she. At some point I’ll read her biography of Mrs. T.

6th UPDATE: The leftist Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has a very good, balanced assessment, “Farewell Mrs Thatcher: In spite of everything, you are being missed already.” In TNR, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes on “The importance of being prickly: How Margaret Thatcher ruled,” in which he discusses, entre autres, the dim view Mrs. T had of much of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy. And Stylist magazine, in assessing the legacy of the Iron Lady, asks “Was Thatcher a feminist?

7th UPDATE: Theodore Dalrymple of the conservative Manhattan Institute has an interesting assessment of Mrs. T’s legacy on the Liberty Law Blog, in which he asks “What hath Thatcher wrought?” For his part, Ali Gharib on the Open Zion blog asks “What kind of friend to Israel was Thatcher?” (Answer: she was a friend but not uncritically). Historian David Cannadine, writing in the NYT, poses his question, “How should we rank Margaret Thatcher?” And IFRI’s Politique Étrangère blog reprints a 1989 portrait (en français) of la Dame de fer—which is not too tender—by the late defense analyst and Tory party member, Hugh Hanning.

8th UPDATE: Economist John Van Reenen has analysis at VoxEU on “Mrs Thatcher’s economic legacy.” And the trendy Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, in “a leftist tribute to Thatcher,” says that

What we need today, in this situation, is a Thatcher of the left: a leader who would repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction, transforming the entire field of presuppositions shared by today’s political elite of all main orientations.

To which a lefty friend—who may or may not have been joking—responded: yes, Chairman Mao! Well, if that’s the leftist answer to Mrs. T, I’ll take Mrs. T any old day…

9th UPDATE: I had a lively exchange on FB over this post with a leftist FB friend named Joel, who expressed indignation at what he saw as my limp-wristed critique—if not backhanded defense—of Margaret Thatcher. Here is my portion of the exchange (Joel has deleted his, though one may divine its tenor from my remarks)

Joel, thanks for your comments. I was not focused on ridiculing knee-jerk leftists – I think you’re overly sensitive here – even though knee-jerk leftists do sometimes merit ridicule. On what happened to the British economy under Thatcher, I am familiar with the story and data, but given the calamitous state of that economy when she came to power, I wonder how different it would have been (in terms of unemployment and inflation) had Labour or the Tory wets been at the helm in the 1980s. As for the privatization of enterprises in the competitive, productive sector of the economy, this was going to happen sooner or later anyway, as it did in France (and on this specific issue, I’m a neoliberal). On trade unions, I’m totally for them, except when they become rent-seeking, conservative, and retrograde, which was indeed the case for at least some in the TUC. In very specific cases, unions sometimes do deserve to be smashed (as I’ve argued on my blog in re to a couple of cases in France). And in the conflict between Thatcher and the Stalin-praising Scargill, I will reiterate here my tilt toward the former, no apologies. Thatcher’s economic legacy is the only question that interests me – I couldn’t care less if she embraced Pinochet or Zia ul-Haq – and on this, I follow the lead of economists like Krugman. The verdict: mixed, with a lot of negative points but not totally so.

I’m struck by the torrent of hatred toward Mrs. T. on FB, and almost all from non-Brits at that. It’s as virulent as the Sarkozy hatred on the left in France. Now, I finally couldn’t stand Sarko myself and desperately wanted him to lose the last election, but found the hatred toward him – including in my immediate entourage – unhinged and bordering on the irrational. It seems to be likewise with Thatcher, and with much of it fueled by her public persona more than her policies (and over twenty years after she left the scene; personally speaking, I just can’t continue to despise politicians once they’re gone from power for good, particularly if they left in defeat; though I may make an exception here for Silvio Berlusconi). She personally got under the skin of a lot of people. But insofar as the hatred is due to her policies, it would be useful for lefties to look in the mirror and do a little auto-critiquing themselves, as the Labour party was in pretty bad shape in the late 70s-80s (and by lurching left in the 1983 elections, enabled Thatcher to win easy reelection). The fact is, the Labour party – and particularly its Tony Benn wing – was not credible in the early 80s and had no chance of rallying anything approaching an electoral majority (if the UK had had PR and necessitating coalition govts, the Alliance would have no doubt joined with the Tories rather than Labour in ’83)…

Following Joel’s rejoinder (deleted), I riposted

Joel, the last thing I’m going to do is go to bat for Thatcher’s policies. Seriously. But your rage against the course of history over the past few decades – to which I am not unsympathetic – strikes me as manichean and devoid of any autocritique of the left (Labour party and the unions) and its role in facilitating Thatcher’s rise to power. In point of fact, many features of the postwar UK (and US) economic model had become unsustainable by the late 1970s – politically speaking at least – and had to be reinvented. Listen, those coal mines were not going to be kept open and industry in the competitive sector of the economy was not going to remain under state control. The only alternative I can glean from your denunciation is a Soviet-style command economy behind high protectionist barriers. But this model failed miserably everywhere it was implemented. And there was no electoral majority for it, and certainly not in the 1970s and ’80s (let alone today). There is no getting around this fact.

Joel may have had a response here but I left it at that.

10th UPDATE: Martin Sieff, who belongs to an outfit called the Globalist Research Center, says that “Thatcher lives! In Moscow.” Interesting take. (April 19)

11th UPDATE: The New York Times has an article on newly declassified British “[d]ocuments show[ing] Thatcher-Reagan rift over U.S. decision to invade Grenada.” (August 1)

12th UPDATE: LSE emeritus prof John Gray has an essay in TNR on “Margaret Thatcher’s unintended legacies.” The lede: “She wanted a conservative, middle-class England. She delivered anything but.” (August 23)

The-Iron-Lady

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beppe-grillo.-satira

I didn’t know a thing about Beppe Grillo until last month, when I started to follow the Italian election (and I normally don’t follow Italian politics too closely except during election time there, or when Silvio Berlusconi, not infrequently, says or does something outrageous). In France Grillo is being compared to Coluche, though he reminds me a lot more of Pierre Poujade of the mid 1950s. The revindications of the Poujadists and Grillo’s M5S may not be precisely the same but there are striking similarities between the two: the populist rejection of the establishment and its parties, the movements being comprised exclusively of non-politicians and difficult to classify on the left-right spectrum (the Poujadists were essentially centrists à la Third Republic Rad-Socs, before lurching way to the right when the movement started to disintegrate). And the buffoonish personal style of Grillo resembles that of Poujade (as does his attitude toward Jews, so it seems; see here and here). And the M5S’s newly elected parliamentary deputies are, like the 52 Poujadists who were elected to the National Assembly in January 1956—in a political shocker, overshadowing the victory of the center-left—, rank political novices, though no doubt more educated than the épiciers and boulangers who Poujade recruited onto his candidate lists. Within a few months the Poujadist deputies stopped coming to the Assembly or were co-opted by other parliamentary groups. If a new Italian government is formed and new elections are not called, I wonder if the same won’t happen with Grillo’s M5S deputies and senators.

In any case, here are a couple of articles I just read on the Grillo movement: “Five Stars and a Cricket: Beppe Grillo Shakes Italian Politics,” by Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini, in the latest Southern European Politics and Society (free download); and Charles Grant and Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform, “Two cheers for Beppe Grillo.” The latter is quite good (as is just about everything from the CER, BTW). This passage toward the end puts the Italian situation in perspective

If Italy can find a serious government to negotiate with its eurozone partners, it does have cards to play. It is in a stronger position than the other peripheral eurozone economies. First, the Italian government runs a primary budget surplus (that is, a surplus before the payment of interest on outstanding debt). This makes it much less dependent than the others on support from the rest of the eurozone: if Italy were to default, the Italian government could still pay its bills. Second, Italy’s banking sector is essentially sound; the country does not face the need to raise large sums of money to recapitalise its banks. Third, despite having such a high level of public sector debt, Italy’s overall debt burden (that is, its stock of both public and private debt) is not only lower than the other peripheral economies, but also below that of France and the Netherlands. Fourth, Italy’s external asset position (Italians’ foreign assets minus foreigners’ investments in Italy) is broadly balanced; by contrast, Spain, Portugal and Greece owe large amounts of money to the rest of the world.

In summary, Italy is not quite the basket-case it is often portrayed as abroad. It cannot be so easily bullied as the other peripheral countries. Leaving the eurozone would pose fewer risks to Italy than to the others. This puts the Italian government in a stronger position to play hard-ball in negotiating its fiscal policy.

I am reminded of an excellent CER report from 2006, on Italy and the euro, and which I linked to in 2011. Is well worth (re)reading.

Pierre Poujade, circa 1955

Pierre Poujade, circa 1955

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George Galloway: S.O.B.

george galloway

Son of a bitch, if one doesn’t know American (en français: fils de pute, ordure, salopard…). It is banal and commonplace to call George Galloway an a-hole—the man is utterly despicable and beneath contempt, and has been so forever—but what he did last night at Oxford Univeristy—storming out of a public debate when he learned that one of the participants was an Israeli—was on another level of despicability altogether (see here and here for details, and do watch the video). A couple of comments. What Galloway—an MP in the House of Commons, pour mémoire—did would be inconceivable for a deputy in the French National Assembly, whether on the hard left or extreme right. If a French elected representative behaved in such a way to an Israeli—or to someone of any nationality and on the sole basis of that person’s nationality—, there would be a public firestorm and the elected representative would be formally sanctioned. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Galloway would have acted toward the debate participant if the latter had been anything other than Israeli. This rather strongly suggests that George Galloway is an anti-Semite, pure and simple. Period.

How an MP can get away with such behavior in Britain—despite the condemnations—but not in France is an interesting question, that I will perhaps attempt to address at some point. In storming out of the Oxford debate, Galloway invoked his support of the BDS campaign. I have much to say about BDS—which I do not support, needless to say—and that I will come back to soon.

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In my last post I discussed Tariq Ramadan, the charismatic Egyptian-Swiss philosopher who has authored a slew of books on Islam and being a Muslim in Europe, and with a target audience of youthful European Muslim post-migrants. More interesting-looking—for me at least—is some new social scientific scholarship out on Muslims in Europe, which is reviewed in this fine essay by Timothy Garton Ash in the November 22, 2012, NYRB. The new books are Robert Leiken’s Europe’s Angry Muslims, Jonathan Laurence’s The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims, Martha Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance, and Paul Scheffer’s Immigrant Nations (this one looks particularly interesting), plus the Open Society Foundation’s report on Muslims in 11 EU cities. To these one may add anthropologist John R. Bowen’s Blaming Islam, which is reviewed in this essay in Qantara.de. Bowen has authored two major recent works on Muslims and Islam in France—both first-rate—, so this one will certainly be worth the read.

nyrb112212

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Following from my last post, I just read another (somewhat) Egypt-related article, this one a review essay in the August-September 2012 issue of Policy Review of Ian Johnson‘s A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, a book that purports to reveal an apparent US collusion with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood going back to the 1950s, specifically a covert relationship between the CIA and Said Ramadan, MB founder Hassan al-Banna’s son-in-law and spiritual heir—and father of Tariq Ramadan—, who lived in exile in West Germany, then Switzerland, from the mid 1950s on. The notion that the US has long supported Islamist movements across the Muslim world has been out there since the 1980s and fervently believed by many—and fueled by the misconstrued, misunderstood US support of the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Union—but there has never been anything to it (e.g. it has been widely believed by secular Algerians—and more than a few French observers—that the US supported the FIS and its successors during that country’s tumultuous political conjuncture in the 1990s; the notion is pure fantasy, a complete figment of some collective imagination and which I have argued against for decades, but there is no refuting it for those who believe it dur comme fer). That the US could have actively cultivated the Egyptian MB, and at any point along the way, has never made sense to me. So I was skeptical of Johnson’s thesis—summarized here in the NYRB—, needless to say, but was willing to give it a look, so I got hold of a copy and read it en diagonale. Not convinced.

Reading John Rosenthal’s Policy Review essay confirmed my assessment. Rosenthal, who writes on security issues and is a German-speaker—thereby enabling him to look at Johnson’s original source material plus others—, pronounced Johnson’s supposed revelation of a CIA-Said Ramadan collaboration to be without foundation, that Johnson in no way proves it in his book. In his essay Rosenthal refers extensively to a book published in Germany (as yet untranslated into English) shortly after Johnson’s and on precisely the same subject, A Mosque in Germany: Nazis, Secret Services, and the Rise of Political Islam in the West, by Stefan Meining. This work, which carries more extensive documentation from American and German archives than does Johnson’s, comes up with no evidence pointing to a US-MB collusion. So for me at least, Rosenthal’s essay settles the issue.

What Meining’s book does do, as Rosenthal explicates, is document some of the liaisons dangereuses between German intelligence and Islamist movements over the decades—continuing from the extensive Nazi collaboration with Muslims during WWII (Haj Amin al-Husseini, the recruitment of Bosniaks and anti-Soviet Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia into the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, etc)—, and of a general German complaisance toward Islamists. So if one is looking for covert Western collusion with the MB & Co., look to Bonn and Berlin, not Washington.

Eine Moschee in Deutschland

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Paul Krugman and the Germans

TNR deputy editor Cameron Abadi has an informative and somewhat amusing piece on German attitudes toward Paul Krugman, who is, as is well known, a relentless critic of German policy in regard to the European economic crisis and the euro. The Germans, who are fascinated by Krugman, both eagerly seek his advice and pay no attention to it. I found this passage particularly interesting

KRUGMAN IS AWARE that people with his understanding of economics don’t normally receive much attention in Germany. “We have a tradition in the Anglo-Saxon world, you try and have a schematic view of the economy,” he tells me. “German have this whole—well, it’s kind of hard for me to know what they’re saying.”

Krugman is not alone in his confusion. The philosophical touchstone of contemporary German economics isn’t the work of Adam Smith, or Hayek, or Marx, but rather Walter Euken, a man whom few outside of Germany have ever heard of (though he’s so well-regarded in his own country that his face has appeared on a German stamp). In the 1930s, Euken founded a school of economics at the University of Freiburg that came to be known as ordoliberalism. It combined a commitment to free markets with a belief in strong government, but its primary economic concern was stability—understandable in a country scarred by the experience of hyperinflation in the 1920s, the depression of the 1930s, and the subsequent rise of Nazism. When West Germany needed to create a state in the aftermath of World War II, the ordoliberal theoreticians set up the “social market economy” that became the country’s unquestioned economic framework. They created a robust welfare state, but it was embedded in a legal structure that was engineered to promote economic stability—rules for balanced budgets, rules for labor participation in the workplace—and ideally wouldn’t require continuous intervention by the state.

The flip side of this obsession with rules was a distaste for the sorts of pragmatic responses to crises preferred by American economists. That’s why many Germans still tend to embrace “automatic stabilizers” like unemployment insurance, but shy from discretionary spending, like massive stimulus packages. They would prefer to suffer short-term pain now for the promise of arriving at a more sustainable equilibrium later. And worst of all for Germans is the idea—not at all unusual in Anglo-Saxon economic literature—that inflation can help lift a country out of an incipient depression. Germans hear the word inflation and think only of their worst nightmare: instability.

In that way, “Germany has very few influential Keynesian economists,” according to a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Olaf Storbeck, economics correspondent for the German business daily Handelsblatt, tells me, somewhat more bluntly, “Keynesianism is a dirty word in Germany.”

I have no doubt come across Walter Euken’s name but can’t say I know much about him. As I’ll be teaching a new course next semester on the EU, I’ll read up on him and ‘ordoliberalism’, which is a compelling model. In the meantime, I will continue to side with my man Krugman on Germany and Europe, though, as does he, I do like Germany and have a lot of admiration for it and for Germans. It is a well-ordered, civilized, prosperous country (and not for cultural reasons; Germans do not work harder and are no more efficient than Frenchmen). It’s the ordoliberalism, stupid!

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Welcome to America, take a number

A commentary in today’s NYT by Malte Lehming, the opinion page editor of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, Emphasis added at the end

This fall my newspaper sent me to the United States to cover the elections. I brought my wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 9, with me.

Since the children were born here, while I was working as my paper’s Washington correspondent, they have American citizenship, and the trip seemed a good opportunity for them to get to know their homeland a little better.

This is the same homeland where conservatives have been howling about how the Obama administration is pushing America ever closer to European socialism. Europeans, they say, have the longest vacations (Germany), the highest debt (Greece), the highest taxes (Scandinavia) and the most bureaucracy (Brussels). Europe and socialism: the two appear in American conservative rhetoric almost as synonyms.

But as a German citizen who has now fought fierce battles with American telephone companies, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the public schools, I find it strange that Americans fear a socialist state. Because Europe’s bureaucratic nightmares have nothing on America’s.

For example, it took an entire day for my wife and me to get our visas processed. We had to answer dozens of detailed questions online: the exact dates of our previous stays in America, the dates of trips to other countries where we had needed visas, the complete birth names of our grandparents. And if we took too long to answer and didn’t save our work in the meantime, the Web site automatically shut down and we had to start all over again.

Then there was the little matter of getting our daughters into public school. The pile of forms weighed nearly two pounds. Our pediatrician back home had to certify all vaccinations, which again had to be authenticated by a second doctor, certified in the United States. And the entire family had to be present at each of these appointments.

And don’t ask about getting a phone line installed before our arrival. Our landlord tried to help, but it took him weeks of bouncing between Comcast and Verizon.

Nothing, however, reminded me more of the worst parts of the German system than the Virginia D.M.V. Its Web site helpfully said that if I had a German driver’s license, as well as authorized proof of residence, I could trade it in for a state license without further tests.

What it didn’t say, though, was how long the process would last. In the meantime, my entire file was lost.

None of this would be out of place in many European countries. But citizens of those countries, which embrace the notion of a larger government, also benefit greatly. We pay high taxes, but we get great infrastructure in return.

I spent half a day hunting for a store with flashlights in stock, because a storm had knocked out our power. In five decades in Germany I have never experienced a single power failure, because the power lines are usually underground and well maintained.

Yes, we have long holidays. But we probably still work more than our American colleagues, because our buildings are intact, the infrastructure works and we don’t sit around in traffic jams every day because of road work.

So why do Americans look only at the bad side of Europe? Done right, with enough money, it is punctual, efficient and organized. One may call it socialist, but it makes life easier.

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The EU’s Nobel Prize

There’s been a lot of mocking and derision at the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. And I will admit that my immediate reaction was also to mock and deride. But this was unfair, as the prize is, in fact, well-deserved. It’s just badly timed. Twenty years ago—when the TEU was signed at Maastricht—would have made more sense. Art Goldhammer got it right

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize before he had done anything. The prize to the EU seems like the opposite: a sort of lifetime achievement award (overlooking a few mishaps such as Srbrenica and Kosovo). Europe may be collapsing, but it’s not at war. In this light, the prize, while somewhat pointless, is not absurd.

Liam Hoare, writing in The Atlantic, agrees. Noting the “dismissive, odious, and repugnant” tone of those critiquing the award, he asserts that this

reflects a total failure to recognize and appreciate the historic accomplishments of the European Union — but also the work it continues to do to eliminate economic barriers and foster international and interethnic cooperation, on a continent that was for centuries stuck in a cycle of perpetual war.

David Frum is on the same page. In a tribune in the National Post, he asks, after obligatorily dumping on the EU

So boo to the Nobel committee?

Well … no. Not so fast.

The Norwegians are sending a reminder flare to their continental neighbours: In the throes of today’s crisis, please remember, the Euro may have been a mistake, but the European Union must be preserved. The EU must be preserved not only as the obviously beneficial trading area that it is, but also (yes) as an ideal.

It’s an inspiring thing to visit the German-Polish border and see — not barriers, not legacies of old hatreds — but goods-laden trucks whizzing past as casually as if they were crossing the North Carolina-South Carolina state line. It’s an inspiring thing to visit Alsace and see this territory that was contested in three terrible wars arrive at peace via the simple proposition: If you want a house in Alsace, buy one. Who cares which sovereign delivers the mail?

The European Union presents every member nation with a magnificently attractive vision: A Europe at peace with itself, a Europe of rising prosperity, a Europe in which Europeans can move freely to live and work. When extremist forces arise in European countries — as they are rising now in Greece and in Hungary — they are met with the answer, “But if we yield to these forces, we’ll put ourselves outside Europe. No more right to work in London. No more aid from Germany.” The desire to qualify for Europe has powerfully pulled countries such as Serbia and Romania along the democratic path — and in years to come will exert the same force upon Belarus and Ukraine.

That’s a powerful and precious achievement. At a moment when the achievement risks being lost or forgotten due to a financial fiasco, the parliamentarians of Oslo did well to use their most effective platform to remind Europe and the world of what is at risk.

Tout à fait. But this does beg the issue as to the legitimacy of the whole Nobel enterprise. À propos, Walter Russell Mead has a positive review in the latest Foreign Affairs of a negative history of the Nobel Peace Prize. The author of the reviewed book, Jay Nordlinger, is a well-known rightist, though that does not a priori invalidate his argument. The Nobel committee has awarded the peace prize to so many people who manifestly did not deserve it that one has a hard time taking it seriously at this point. Better to abolish the thing and dedicate the money for some other peace-related cause.

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Family Ties

The New York Times’s Opinionator page has a wonderful blog called Borderlines, which is about maps. The posts are all by map-lover and connoisseur Frank Jacobs, who also has a blog called Strange Maps: Cartographic Curiosities. I’m a lifelong map aficionado, so am bound to like blogs like these. The Borderlines post today is about the invisible borders of family types in Europe. Observing the existence of numerous invisible cultural borders—e.g. linguistic, culinary—, Jacobs writes that

some cultural categories are more persistent than the fading diversity of language. Research conducted in 2007 paints a pretty strange, and surprisingly tenacious, set of borders across Western Europe. Its subject? “An often overlooked institution, the family”: some academics had “noted strong patterns of family structure, with clear regional variations and persistence over time and linked them to significant social and economic outcomes.”

The research considered family types based on two criteria. One, the relationship between parents and children. If children flee the nest at an early age, the family type can be said to be “liberal.” If they stay at home and under the authority of their parents long into adulthood, even after having married themselves, the relationship can be classified as “authoritarian.” Second criterion: the relationship among siblings. If they are treated equally (in inheritance law, for example), the relationship is classified as “equal,” but if one child is favored (the firstborn son, say), the relationship is “unequal.”

He then proceeds to enumerate the five distinct family types in Europe. This sounded very familiar to me, as I had read all about it back in the ’90s, in the work of French social scientist and public intellectual Emmanuel Todd, who pioneered the typology. Todd began his research on the question in the early 1980s—as described in the single volume reprint of his two main books on it—, after having been struck by the near perfect coincidence between parts of Europe where the Communist party was electorally strong and a particular type of peasant family structure, that was both authoritarian and egalitarian. Todd advanced the hypothesis of a necessary link between the anthropological basis of a society and its ideological superstructure. The typology of family systems he developed—integrating the level of authoritarianism in the parent-child relationship, the degree of equality in the relationship between brothers, matrimonial exchange and the status of women—enabled him to explain the diversity of ideological and economic destinies in Europe—and then the whole world—, both between societies and within them.

Todd was advancing an overarching structural argument to Explain the world, in the same way as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and all sorts of mega-works on the economy. I thought it was a fascinating argument—and which I discussed at length at the time with one academic friend (no one else I knew was familiar with Todd’s work)—though didn’t know what to make of it. Though compelling it did seem a little deterministic and I wondered about the accuracy of Todd’s descriptions of the family structures of countries other than France, which were mainly based on secondary sources. Also, the English translations of his books on the subject (published by Blackwell, long out-of-print) received mixed reviews in the relevant academic journals (in sociology, anthropology, and history; I read them all). Most of the reviewers were skeptical of Todd’s mega-claims, though none outright rubbished his argument so far as I remember. Todd’s a big wheel in France but non-French scholars pay little attention to him (and despite his doctorate from Cambridge), so he isn’t well-known in Anglo-American academia (and I don’t think in most of Europe either). His public intellectual side irritated as well—irritated me, at least—, with his sometimes flaky political views (generally left souverainiste) and obsessions, and shoot-from-the-hip media punditry. Todd is smart but a nut, when not a crank.

But now I see that Todd’s arguments on family structure do indeed underpin Frank Jacobs’s post, which is based on an academic paper he cites by Gilles Duranton, Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, and Richard Sandall (economists and geographers in Canada and the UK), published by the College of Europe in Bruges. The paper

examines the association between one of the most basic institutional forms, the family, and a series of demographic, educational, social, and economic indicators across regions in Europe. Using Emmanuel Todd’s classification of medieval European family systems, we identify potential links between family types and regional disparities in household size, educational attainment, social capital, labour participation, sectoral structure, wealth, and inequality. The results indicate that medieval family structures seem to have influenced European regional disparities in virtually every indicator considered. That these links remain, despite the influence of the modern state and population migration, suggests that either such structures are extremely resilient or else they have in the past been internalised within other social and economic institutions as they developed.

So it looks like Emmanuel Todd may have been on to something after all. The PDF of the paper is here.

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Super Mario Balotelli

[updates below]

The New York Times has a cover story on its web page today on Mario Balotelli, the star striker of the Italian national team and Manchester City, whose performance against Germany in Thursday’s semifinal turned me into a Squadra Azzurra fan for the first time in thirty years—at least for tonight’s final against Spain (in the Euro 2012, if one doesn’t know). Here’s hoping he scores the winning goal and becomes Italy’s national hero, thereby causing the masses of racist, monkey-chanting idiots there to STFU. He’s already won hearts in the peninsula and elsewhere by showing himself to be a good Italian boy who loves his mamma (below and here). On the question of race in European soccer, see this analysis on “Mario Balotelli and the new Europe” by historian Laurent Dubois, on his excellent blog Soccer Politics/The Politics of Football. A British TV reportage on Mario B. may be seen here. For now, all I can say is Forza Azzurri!

UPDATE: As it happens, Mario B.’s adoptive mother is Jewish and has family in Israel.

2nd UPDATE: Mario wasn’t too brilliant against Spain, nor were his teammates. Oh well, can’t win ‘em all, as they say…

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