Saturday, January 04, 2014

Common Thread

European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France via Flicker

Here in the U.S. when we wring our hands about our rabid right wing, its racism, violent rhetoric and embrace of ignorance, we tend to see it as a local aberration, a national failing.

But it's not entirely limited to the U.S.  Thanks to the Mayor of Toronto, we're more cognizant of a Tea Party rightist trend in Canada, which has affected national as well as local politics and policy.

Now an oped in the New York Times asserts a widening of something similar in Europe, and not simply within countries.  It is deliberately attacking the European Union, so it is happening to Europe.

Andrea Mammone writes:

 It may seem bizarre that two far-right, nationalist politicians — Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands — have reached across borders to form a Pan-European group dedicated to weakening the European Union. Their aim is a transnational political alliance that would compete in the May elections for the European Parliament; once in power, they would cooperate to try to rein in the power of Brussels.

While the Tea Party in Canada may be partly an American import, Mammone traces the history of the European model:  "But in fact, since the early 20th century, Europe’s far-right nationalists have often united in search of an “other” to oppose, exclude, resist, restrict or oppress... "

The most extreme and famous example is the Nazis.

This vision did not die with the end of World War II. Transnational links among right-wing parties, based on common fears of minorities and immigrants, endured. The right-wingers, while speaking different languages, borrowed ideals, strategies, slogans and theorists from one another... 

So when observers marvel about the “new” nationalist parties of Europe, they are capturing only part of the truth. These right-wingers mistrust or even detest the Continent’s core institutions — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the European Parliament — but they are perfectly happy to join up with extremists in other countries to weaken those institutions. 

Anti-immigrant racism and a deathly hostility to government characterize European as well as North American far rightists. They seize upon economic troubles:

Soaring youth unemployment, stringent fiscal policies, German-led monetary clout and the presence of Muslim immigrants have created a perfect target for the likes of Mr. Wilders and Ms. Le Pen, who blame outside forces like the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union for their nations’ woes. Conveniently, they overlook structural problems like the costs of social welfare and pension programs, declining birthrates, aging populations, stagnant labor productivity and intensifying competition from the economies of Asia and Latin America. 

But Mammone also suggests that bureaucratic remoteness has left the European Union open to such attacks. These parties may gain enough votes in coming elections to cause trouble. "Even as a tiny, noisy voice within the European Parliament, this alliance could create a lot of trouble. Just think of the successes that Tea Party Republicans have had in impeding decision making in the United States."

How would these right-wingers reshape Europe? They say they would give power back to nations by dismantling the technocratic decision-making power amassed in Brussels and returning powers back to individual member states. They would pause, if not quite reverse, six decades of growing integration.

Two elements in this analysis seem especially appropriate to a more cogent analysis of what's going on in the U.S.  First is relating it directly to movements in the American past.  Some efforts have been made but none seem as effective as the vigorous pushback in the 1960s to the extreme right surge during the administration of the first U.S. President to be of the alien Catholic faith (while today's rightists include many Catholics). Richard Hofstader's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life comes to mind, a history of ignorance-proud extremism, and a best-seller in the early 60s.

The second is related: the inability of defenders of government and liberal democracy to respond to the challenge.  President Obama has been eloquent in his redefinition of this political ethic, and while the media establishment etc. ignores him (and even liberals criticize him for not saying what in fact he is saying.)  In policy and political terms, there are some political signs: the elections of progressive populists Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor of NYC de Blasio.  The rabid right as a more extreme version of the policies born in a new flurry of right wing think tanks a few decades ago suggests that new progressive organizations, notably the Center for American Progress, may be crucial in creating more momentum .  But at the moment, the progressive defense seems insufficient.

Here's Mammone's conclusion about Europe:

Tragically, in the face of this assault, calls for European solidarity are few. This is a sign of how far Europe has come from the dream that helped lift it from the ashes of war. It is a sign of the fading of the vision — common markets, democratic institutions and societal integration — promoted by the postwar founders of European integration: thinkers and statesmen like Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Altiero Spinelli.

The European Union must reclaim its reputation as a champion of the people. Its leaders should abandon their embrace of technocratic solutions, their support for the banking sector and their stoic austerity. Unless they deliver more jobs, and more of a sense that citizens are in charge, the far right will only keep growing."

It's about more than Europe. It's global economic policy that favors the wealthy, that sets the rest against each other for the crumbs, gets the majority poor to hate the minorities and vote against those who might use government to constrain the rich and enforce economic justice. That's the common thread, isn't it?  Encouraged by needless austerity, racial flashpoints, and a comfortably complacent or otherwise helpless governing class. 

Friday, January 03, 2014

Snowy New Year

 Winter storm from the midwest to the northeast coast so far yields massive snow totals in New England with more to come for New York on Friday, accompanied by wind and followed by subzero temps. Gov. Cuomo declared a statewide state of emergency. Air and highway travel have been disrupted.  More photos from the first day of this storm.  Meanwhile, the Midwest is bracing for a blast of very cold air that could reach into the South.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Engage! 2014

This is one big reason I voted for the guy for President (twice, primary and general) in 2004.  From the New York Times:

But while the public’s attention has been on his diplomacy in the Middle East, behind the scenes at the State Department Mr. Kerry has initiated a systematic, top-down push to create an agencywide focus on global warming. His goal is to become the lead broker of a global climate treaty in 2015 that will commit the United States and other nations to historic reductions in fossil fuel pollution. 

The story by Coral Davenport notes that as Senator and so far as Secretary of State, John Kerry has a long record of commitment on addressing climate crisis but with only a short list of successes.  However, there is one potentially significant one recently:

 As a result of midlevel talks Mr. Kerry set up to pave the way for a 2015 deal, the United States and China agreed in September to jointly phase down production of hydrofluorocarbons, greenhouse gases used in refrigerators and air-conditioners.

“He’s pushing to get climate to be the thing that drives the U.S. relationship with China,” said Timothy E. Wirth, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who now works on climate change issues with the United Nations Foundation. 

China is making some moves on climate issues, including an internal cap and trade scheme (not noted in this story.)  If the two biggest greenhouse gases polluters in the world can work together on this issue, it could well have a positive effect globally.  It's still a long shot but there's that possibility.

Institutional change in Washington is often slow, but it does often start at the top.  A new emphasis on climate began in the Energy department in 2008, and in the EPA arguably a few years later. Those changes as they work their way through the bureaucracy now make it possible for enforcing as well as creating rules regulating greenhouse gases produced for power generation.

 Now Kerry is changing State:

Shortly after Mr. Kerry was sworn in last February, he issued a directive that all meetings between senior American diplomats and top foreign officials include a discussion of climate change. He put top climate policy specialists on his State Department personal staff. And he is pursuing smaller climate deals in forums like the Group of 20, the countries that make up the world’s largest economies. 

Other nations are taking notice, the story says, and it details John Kerry's unbroken series of efforts to address the climate crisis, some including his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, whose own advocacy on this issue predates their marriage.  

With John Kerry at the helm of the State Department to deal with other nations, and now John Podesta in the White House to encourage domestic action, it could be that in the next two years, even against overwhelming odds, the fight for the future may be truly engaged.  Davenport's story notes:

It has not gone unnoticed that this administration is now much more engaged on climate change,” said Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Every international negotiator understands it.” When Mr. Kerry took office, Mr. Schmidt said, “The dynamic changed quite a bit.”

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Get It Straight 2014

Addressing problems begins with defining them correctly.  Mistakes even in categories (let alone facts) lead to errant solutions or more likely, cynical but very windy and useless controversies.  These days the mistakes are often made by substituting the most repeated, most fashionable category for the one that's correct but slipping away fast, even out of consciousness.

Two examples of this tendency jumped out at me recently.  The first was in one of the conversations about prospects for 2014 and the future generally on NPR.  This one was "What Does the Future Hold for Climate Change." Host Steve Inskeep interviewed Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute. Steer was putting forward the Consumer Goods Forum as a hopeful sign--a group of companies that want to be "the good guys" and reduce carbon, not buy tropical oils that lead to deforestation, etc.  He said they were responding to customers who "increasingly want them to do the right thing." Then this exchange took place:

INSKEEP: It's the image thing. It's public relations.
STEER: Well, almost so because - so the moral thing. I mean the reason that I recycle is not for my image. It's because I actually think it's the right thing to do. 

Giving Inskeep his due, he was probably talking about the motivation of the companies, and he's probably right to be cynical in assuming they're responding to customer pressure for p.r. purposes.  But Steer makes the right distinction.  The reason is not public relations, it's moral.  And that's the important distinction.  If the commitment isn't moral, it won't be real--even if Steer had to explain that somebody could do something because "I actually think it's the right thing to do."  So advocates can't be talking about companies improving their image.  They must keep to the correct category: the morality of destroying the Earth and the human future.

On a different subject, Michael Wolff in the Guardian reports on the New York Times effort to keep competitive on the Internet by including "native advertising"--those weird ads and "links" that are actually advertising.  Their quality is usually that of the kind of ads you used to find in the back of sleazy magazines. Now they're on virtually every Internet site. The Times is going to include them, Wolff says, but in ways that separate them from editorial content.

Wolff (not always the most reliable of reporters) seems pretty astute on the clash of advertising models on the Internet vs. print, but he goes frothing at the mouth haywire asserting that newspapers and magazine that insist on a distinction between editorial content and advertising are doing so because they are elitist.  The easy-entry, click-happy Internet threatens the Times ability to '"demonstrate its quality bona fides or cast its snobbish spell."

But the issues aren't elitism or snobbery, however potent they may be in even an Internet outlet's appeal.  They are the independence of the editorial voice, and readers' confidence that they know who is talking--is it the Times, or is it an advertiser with its agenda?

The threat of advertising encroaching on editorial independence and on the clear difference for readers of editorial content and paid-for advertising content has been ongoing in print and broadcast media for at least my quasi-adult lifetime.  The Internet is already swamped with dubious information, dominated by sensationalism and cheap momentary emotions, as well as by complete fraud.  With a few exceptions, the only semi-reliable news comes from the Internet sites of established print and broadcast news organizations that at least try to take journalistic ethics seriously.  But starting with the native ads cluttering up the page and insulting you, and the links that may lead to a real story by that publication or far afield to another site where you get cookied and possibly virused, these outlets too are becoming distressingly less reliable. (And the popup ads etc. make them very discouraging.)  The situation is going to continue getting worse especially if people can't frame the issues correctly, but fall back on fashionable business-based cynicism.

Both of these category "mistakes" have a couple of things in common.  They favor corporate, B-school fashionable concepts instead of older principle-based ones that apparently have to be dredged shamefaced out of the forgotten deep.  And these "mistakes" have something in common with a broader one expressed by the Canadian Native writer Thomas King.  He relates (in verse) a Coyote story in which Coyote is tricked by Weasel into tying his tail in a knot so tightly that it fall off, because Weasel convinced him it was the key to being able to whistle well.

King concludes: "Elwood told that story to the Rotary Club in town/and everyone laughed and said what a stupid Coyote./ And that's the problem, you know,/seeing the difference between stupidity/and greed."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

Among those we lost in 2013: Doris Lessing, Peter O'Toole, Julie Harris, Roger Ebert, Jonathan Winters, Joan Fontaine, Karen Black, Annette Funicello, Chinua Achebe, Elmore Leonard, Lou Reed, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Frederik Pohl, Deanna Durbin, Jean Stapleton, Ray Manzarek, Esther Williams, Eleanor Powell, Philip Slater, Nelson Mandella.

More on them and others we lost at Books in Heat, Stage Matters, Boomer Hall of Fame and Soul of Star Trek.   May they rest in peace, as their work and example nourish and guide us into the future.