Saturday, 29 November 2008

Britain's Fritzl: is Austria off the hook?

Back in April, as the details of the notorious case of Josef Fritzl in Austria became public, the world became instantly fascinated. The details of the case were absolutely horrific: A man had imprisoned his daughter in his family's basement and repeatedly impregnanted her over 20 years, hiding the children she bore in the basement with her and never letting any of them see the light of day.

At the time many in the media (including myself) sought answers to the incredibly bizarre circumstance within the culture in which they took place. A lot of ink was spilled about how the case reflected the "look the other way" culture in Austria, a traditionally conservative society that highly values privacy.

But now details are emerging about a case in Britain that may throw that argument on its head. This week a man in Sheffield received 25 life sentences for getting his two daughters pregnant 19 times during almost 30 years of rape and physical abuse. The case has eery similarities to the Fritzl case, but the numbers involved in the story are even worse in the UK case. Instead of 20 years, the raping went on for 30 years. Instead of impregnanting one daughter, this man impregnanted two. And rather than hiding his daughters and their children, this family was living out in the open, and even received visits from British social workers.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

India's 9/11

The news coming out of Mumbai today has really been horrific, and the tragedy is still unfolding. I don't have much to write about it, but I think it will be interesting to see exactly what actually happened once this is resolved. This attac was shockingly brazen. There's a massive army training facility right next to India gate in the bay, so if its true that they landed next to Gateway of India by boat, that means they sailed right past it. If the details of how this unfolded last night are accurate, truely this is an attack unlike any other the world has seen. This is India's 9/11, and perhaps the most significant attack the world has seen since 9/11 in its introduction of a new, unthought of type of terrorism.

I was at the Taj hotel almost exactly a year ago during a business trip to India, and its really shocking to think that terrorists could take over such a massive landmark like this. The Taj is one of the most famous hotels in India, comperable to the Ritz or the Park Plaza. And there are still people barricaded in their rooms more than 24 hours after this all started. It's really stunning.fff

Monday, 24 November 2008

Socialist Drama Continues

The French Socialist Party probably couldn't have imagined a worse result than Thursday's vote for a new leader, which seems to have split the party right down the center. After a vote counting that literally took days and was at various points predicting different winners, it emerged Saturday that Martine Aubrey had won by just 42 votes. But Segolene Royal is alleging voter fraud and demanding a revote. Now the party, divided and derided, seems to be at an impassable juncture and moments away from collapse.

With such a small margin of victory (42 out of 134,784 cast), it's hard to see how the vote will be seen as conclusive to anyone. But even more embarassing that the narrow victory margin was the low turnout; more than 40 percent of the party’s 233,000 members didn't even vote at all, likely as an expression of their exasperation with the party.

This morning her lawyer reportedly asked her former partner and current party leader Francois Hollande (the father of Royal’s four children - awkward!), to annul the vote. Hollande must make a decision by Wednesday. But will another vote really solve the problem? Whichever the result, there is going to be a large faction conspiring against whoever is chosen as leader.

One could see across the French media today mockery of the Socialists' dilema, but perhaps where this was most interesting was in the leftist papers. Today's Le Monde wrote that the result of the vote couldn't have possibly been worse. The front page of Le parisien featured a rose, the symbol of the party, cleft in two. And the Journal du Dimanche cracked called the party "suicidal."

If the party were to split it would be a political earthquake for France. It is the second largest party in the country, the equivalent of the Democratic Party in the US. It is still very powerful in the provinces and controls most French major cities. As recently as 2002 it had a majority in the parliament.

The fall of France's Socialiast party is symptomatic of the larger problems being expienced by European leftist parties. It is perhaps ironic that just as the global economic collapse should be giving their ideology the most credence, the European left seems to be more unpopular than any time in the last half century.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Socialist soap opera

Say what you will about it, but you can't say that French politics is boring. Just as the country is in the midst of speculating which government official is responsible for the unmarried Minister of Justice Rachida Dati's pregnancy, the Socialist Party conference this weekend exploded with a cacophony of backstabbing, intrigue and humiliation involving jilted lovers and feuding siblings. It was, as one French friend amusingly put it, "quite the shit show."

The party conference, similar to a party convention in the US, was supposed to signal the return of a strong and confident Socialist Party that would be capable of challenging French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012. The reality was anything but. Though it took place in Reims, the capital of France's tranquil Champagne region, there was little celebrating going on for the main party of the French left. The intention was select a new leader for the party now that Fran├žois Hollande (above left) is stepping down after 11 years. Of course "leader" is a subjective term here, it would probably be more accurate to say he held the party together as it teetered on the brink of collapse for the past decade.

British Adults are Terrified of Teens

So far this morning the currency markets seem to be ignoring UK Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne's comments on Saturday. Despite predictions that the pound would take a dramatic plunge once currency trading opened this morning, it is actually slightly up against the dollar as of noon. Phew! Safe for now. But according to a new report receiving a lot of press coverage this morning, Brits may be fearing something even more insidious than a collapsed currency: their own children.

A poll conducted by a British charity shows that more than half of British adults are afraid of British children, believing they behave like animals and pose an increasing danger to themselves and others.

The behavior of British young people has been increasingly in the news, with public perceptions of children growing worse and worse. Recently a product was launched in the UK called the 'mosquito,' which emits a painful noise that only people under 18 can hear. The device is being sold to British shop-owners and other people, with the idea that they would install them on their premises to keep away young loitering hooligans. The popularity of the product has caused many British pundits to question people's attitudes toward British children.

According to the study, words like 'animal', 'feral' and 'vermin' are used daily in reference to children by British adults. The charity launched a TV advert this morning to accompany the report, showing a group of men seemingly talking about hunting a group of meddlesome animals. But then at the end of the advert it is revealed that all of the comments they used were actually comments British adults wrote about children in the comments sections of British newspapers.

But though the group is condemning these attitudes, many on the other side say that the fear expressed by these adults isn't the problem, but is rather a symptom of the real trouble - the increasingly shocking behavior of British youths. Incidents of young people being involved in violent crime or anti-social behavior have become frequent fare on the front pages of British newspapers, particularly several high-profile cases. In one of the most shocking cases, three teenagers were found guilty in January of murdering father of three Garry Newlove, who was beat to death after he confronted a group of youths making trouble outside his home.

So which is the real problem? Is the media needlessly fear-mongering by focusing so heavily on these youth crimes, or is it highlighting a legitimate social issue as British children drift into widespread anti-social behavior? The answer is probably a bit of both. As a foreigner living in the UK I have to say I noticed right away a dramatic difference in the behavior of British teenagers versus those in the US - and I reached this conclusion without the aid of the British media. When I first moved to London I was truly shocked by how British children behaved, and how accustomed adults seemed to have become to the behavior. My office in London was near a school, and every day in the mid-afternoon we would hear a chorus of shrieking, screaming and obscenities like I had never heard. I can say without exaggeration that it literally sounded like like people were being murdered outside. The first time it happened I ran to the window to see what was happening, and my coworkers looked on with mild bemusement. They had grown accustomed to this kind of display, whereas I thought some kind of horrible crime was being committed on the street below.

I should point out that when I moved to London I was coming directly from New York City, so it's not a question of being in an urban area rather than a suburban one. Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky. But I've had this conversation with many other Americans living in London and they've all said they've independently observed the same thing, that British children seem to be bizarrely out of control compared to youths in the US. But then again, who knows how much the British media influenced our perceptions in this area.

Clearly the fact that so many adults seem to be terrified of children is not good, but it seems to me that blaming the media entirely for this fear misses the bigger point. The current generation of British teenagers has somehow ended up feeling alienated from and unaccountable to society. I don't know how this came about, but people's fear in this area isn't entirely irrational. Then again, one should also keep in mind that complaining about the "youth of today" is a trend that will probably never go away, so matter which generation is being discussed.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Imminent Collapse of the Pound?

Gordon Brown is in Washington this weekend, along with the other leaders of the G20 countries, attempting to come up with a solution to the global economic crisis. The ambitions for the group are huge, with suggestions of a global stimulus package and perhaps the creation of a global financial regulatory body. And it is the first time that the leaders of the G8 countries have met to discuss the current crisis with the growing economies like India, China and Brazil, which analysts say will be crucial in jolting the world out of the financial mess its in. But despite the big plans, everyone knows that at this weekend's meeting little is likely to be committed because of one very important absence from the conference: Barack Obama. With the Bush Administration leaving office in two months, countries see little point in making firm commitments now when everything could change come January.

Just now the summit has released a declaration of intent, with key points saying that each country has committed to financial stimulus, with each using government money to prop up the economy. It's also come out with pretty damning language about what got us into this mess, laying the blame on the door of the US and the lack of macroeconomic regulation.

But with little concrete policy news coming out of the meeting, the media in the UK has focused today largely on some side comments made by prime minister Brown on the sidelines. The comments were a response to something said by the Tory shadow chancellor George Osbourne in the Times newspaper today. Osbourne told the Times that Brown's stimulus plans could cause a "proper sterling collapse, a run on the pound." From Washington Brown lashed out at the comments as "irresponsible," suggesting that talk like that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Osbourne's rant was the first time a senior UK politician has suggested that the country may be just weeks away from a currency collapse similar to what happened in the early 1990's. The pound has lost more than a quarter of its value in four months, dropping from over $2.00 in July to less than $1.50 today. It has also plunged against the Euro, declining by 20 percent just in the last month, particularly in the last week. A Euro is now worth a shocking £1.16. If the currency continues falling at this rate it could be worth less than a euro by the end of the year. With an economy that has become almost completely reliant on financial services, currency speculators seem to have concluded that the UK is going to be disproportionately affected by the economic crisis.

As someone who lives in continental Europe but whose savings and salary are in pounds, this is obviously not good for me. In fact the timing of my little jaunt over to the continent apparently couldn't have been worse. Considering I'll be moving to Zurich at the end of this month (the pound-franc exchange is also not good), it's really hitting home how volatile working across borders can be, especially in times of economic turmoil such as these.

It is clear that Osbourne and many other Tories are hoping that a currency collapse could damage Labour in the same way that the Tories were hurt by the sterling crisis in 1992. But as someone who's livelihood depends on that not happening, I share Brown's annoyance at Osbourne's seeming attempt to use the economic crisis to score political points.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Kaliningrad Question

Having written an in-depth article on Russia's Kaliningrad oblast for an article I was working on back in 2002, I'm always interested when the territory makes its way into the news. Most people don't even know of the existence of this strange corner of the earth, but judging from Russian President Medvedev's state of the union speech last week, it could feature very prominently in relations between Russia, the US and Europe over the next decade.

Russia didn't waste any time testing Obama's mettle, with President Dmitry Medvedev delivering a speech the day after the historic election lambasting the United States for provoking the Georgian conflict, leading the world into economic disaster, and threatening Russia with its missile defense system it is installing in Poland and the Czech Republic. These complaints aren't new, but on the last point President Medvedev matched actions to words, saying Russia would install short-range missiles just off the Polish border in its territory of Kaliningrad, in response to the US "provocation." If Russia were to carry out this threat, it could provoke a new Cuban missile crisis for the EU and the new US president Obama. A spokesperson for Obama said today that the president-elect hasn't yet made a decision on whether to continue the Bush Administration's plans for the missile defense system.

So I think this is big news, but coming as it did after Obama's historic election, its been largely overshadowed. Additionally, I've been struck by some of the basic points the media seems to be missing with this news. For one, they keep referring to Kaliningrad as an "enclave" of Russia, when in fact it is an exclave (a territory is an enclave of a country it is completely surrounded by, it is an exclave of the country it belongs to). This may seem like a trivial semantic difference, but by failing to highlight the fact that Kaliningrad is an exclave of Russia it seems to me the media is missing the point. When they refer to the territory as being "on the border of Lithuania and Poland" they fail to mention that it is surrounded by those countries, which are both now in the EU. That means the Russian territory of Kaliningrad is located within the EU. It would be as if Russia owned the US state of Connecticut and was going to install missiles there. Keep in mind this is no insignificant territory, being larger than Connecticut and located on the strategically important Baltic Sea.

So why does Russia have this territory anyway? It's actually a peculiar accident of history and I think an incredibly sad one. The city of Kaliningrad was until the 1950s a German city named Konigsberg. The entire area was settled by crusading Germans in the 13th century and became
the kingdom of Prussia. It was actually the nucleus of what eventually became Germany, with the capital of the growing German Empire only moving from Konigsberg to Berlin in the 18th century. However after World War I, with the re-creation of a Polish state, the allied powers decided that the new country needed access to the Baltic Sea, so they created a "Polish Corridor" cutting through Germany, separating East Prussia from the rest of the German state. One of Hitler's main initial aims was to retake Poland to unite east Prussia with the remainder of Germany. But in the end of course Germany lost the war, and Russia demanded huge territorial concessions. It was decided at the Potsdam Conference that East Konigsberg should be given to Russia, resulting on one of the largest forced population moves following World War II. Before Potsdam East Prussia was almost completely inhabited by ethnic Germans, Russians had never lived in the territory. But at the end of the war about 2 million ethnic Germans were evacuated or forcibly expelled, and ethnic Russians moved in to the territory, which had been almost completely destroyed by World War II.

Kaliningrad was made into an SSR within the Soviet state, and at the time it was contiguous with the rest of the country because the Baltic states were part of the USSR. And with Poland and East Germany in the Warsaw Pact, Kaliningrad was located comfortably well within the Soviet sphere. But with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, things suddenly changed dramatically. Lithuania and Belarus broke away from the USSR and became independent countries. However it didn't make sense for Kaliningrad to become an independent country since it was still inhabited mainly by the ethnic Russians who had moved in during the 1950's. So the territory became a Russian island hundreds of miles away from Russia. Now that Lithuania and Poland have joined the EU and the Schengen Zone, the situation has become tricky.

What makes this situation especially complicated is that Kaliningrad is a sparsely populated, barren wasteland. Russia seemed to almost purposefully punish the territory after they acquired it. Rather than developing this incredibly strategic piece of land - now Russia's only year-round Baltic port - they ignored it. It is very difficult for foreigners to be granted a visa to enter the territory, and even Russians need permission to go there. It is an incredibly sad, desolate place.

For the past 15 years, while the West considered the new Russia to be a friend, the awkward situation of Kaliningrad didn't seem so important. But now with tensions rising between the West and Russia, and with Russia threatening to build up its military presence there, the territory's status could quickly become an issue. Can the EU handle a hostile enclave within its territory?

**Fun semantic trivia for your next cocktail party: Kaliningrad is an exclave of Russia and an enclave of the EU, but it is not an exclave or enclave of Lithuania or Poland because it is not completely surrounded by either.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Obama Urban Coalition

Wow, what a night. I have to say I was pretty bummed to not be in the US for election night. Watching Grant Park and the city streets across the nation erupt in celebration, it just wasn't the same sitting alone in my apartment at five in the morning. Still it was an amazing moment, seeing the celebrations across the world as the Bush era was declared definitively finished.

I started the evening by going with some American friends to a US election party at the town hall of the 3rd arrondisement here in Paris. We were expecting your classic election party, with television, food platters, drinks, etc. Instead we found an art exhibit! Apparently the French conception of an 'election party' involves an exhibition of photography from the US election and the screening of a conceptual art film about American politics. And no booze! There was a large screen showing French coverage of the election, but it was outdoors so the prospect of hanging out to watch the results there for six hours wasn't too enticing! Still it was interesting, when people heard our accents they were very eager to talk about the election. They were really fascinated by it, as the art exhibits reflected. And as the only Americans there we were the self-appointed experts of the moment.

We sort of moved around from cafe to cafe but after it started to get late I went back to my apartment to watch the results. I live on a street with a lot of expat bars and the place across from me was having an election viewing party, but I don't think they realized how late the result was coming because when they finally called it at 5am I went to look out the window to see if they were pouring into the street, and the bar had already closed! So I was a bit jealous as I talked to my friends in the US and they told me how people were pouring into the streets to celebrate. It was really wild. I spoke with one friend who lives in DC, he was outside the white house among the huge crowds that had gathered outside the lawn. He said it almost looked like they were going to storm the gates and drag Bush out themselves. Another friend called me from Grant Park in Chicago and said it was absolutely amazing, unlike anything he had ever seen. It wouldn't be hyperbole to say it looked like a third world country that had just overthrown a dictator. Here's a video someone took from a window in New York's east village.

So what prompted this huge outpouring of jubilation? Certainly it was an extremely unusual reaction to an election result in the US, especially in the last ten years, when election nights were more likely to see people crying in the streets of American cities. To understand why US cities erupted in celebration like this, you have to look beyond the current campaign and look back at the last ten years. Since the election of 2000, which most Democrats considered to have been stolen from Al Gore, residents of American cities in the Northeast and the West Coast have felt as if the Bush Administration was literally at war with them. The Republican Party's strategy during this time has been to appeal almost exclusively to rural white voters, vilifying urban dwellers and using social issues like abortion and gay marriage to drive cultural conservatives to the polls. The strategy worked, and the GOP was voted into office again and again by turning out rural votes. This left American city dwellers feeling almost completely powerless. as if they had no power and no voice while their country's leaders continually vilified and insulted them.

The same playbook was used by the McCain campaign in this election, dividing the country into "real America" and "fake America." So when that strategy didn't work this time, it signalled to city-dwellers that their long period of exile from power was finally over.

Of course there was another reason for the celebrations as well. Part of the GOP's process of vilifying urbanites also involved fostering distrust of African Americans, albeit not with direct language. African Americans felt completely ignored by the Bush Administration, particularly during Hurricane Katrina. Tuesday night the African American community celebrated a minor victory, the defeat of a party which most of them despise, and a major victory, the election of the first black president. No wonder there were tears in the streets. And it was hard not to be moved by them.

What's Next?

The fact is that despite their personal ideology, politicians often take their cues from the people who put them in office. For instance, no matter how much she is vilified as a "liberal" by the American right, Nancy Pelosi has pursued a rather moderate agenda as speaker of the house over the last two years, because she knows Democrats were given their majority by moderate voters in a center-right country. So who put Obama in office?

I thought former speechwriter David Frum made an interesting comment on the BBC Tuesday night, saying Obama was elected into office by a coalition of "the very top and the very bottom." Frum questioned whether over the long term these two groups will have aligning interests. College-educated whites voted almost exclusively for Barack Obama, as did 96 percent of African Americans. But non college-educated whites, especially those in rural areas, voted largely for McCain. Frum insisted on calling this group of McCain voters the "middle class," which I think is debatable. But there is no denying that the majority of blue collar white voters, those in the middle of the income spectrum, did not vote for Barack Obama.

So will this coalition of college-educated whites and African Americans hold? Do they have more in common philosophically than their hatred for George W. Bush? Only time will tell, but early philosophical differences may have already been exposed by the passing of Proposition 8 in California. The proposition sought to amend the constitution to overrule a recent California Supreme Court decision to allow gay marriages in the state, which prompted 18,000 marriages including those of a few celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres. In the end the proposition to ban gay marriage passed by a very narrow margin, and ironically it looks like it was Barack Obama's presence on the ballot that enabled it to pass. Because although the college-educated whites who turned out for Obama would have mostly voted against it, the huge African American turnout that was driven to the polls for Obama would have mostly voted for it. This is perhaps the biggest divide between African Americans, who are largely socially conservative and religious, and college-educated whites, who are often socially progressive and secular.

With control of both houses of congress and the presidency, the Democrats have a huge mandate for action. But what action will they take? it's going to be fascinating to watch.