Saturday, March 17, 2018

Update on Europe

The recent elections in Italy and the German government finally renewing its existing coalition government are two important events in a series of European political impasses and a general move to the right coupled with widespread rejection of the established political parties in several nations. 

The new Italian bicameral legislature looks like a design for a stalemate. 

The legendary Italian left is reduced to a small delegation of less than a third of either their assembly or senate. 

The right made small gains, but the real news is a large shift from the traditional center right to a new hard right represented by the Northern League (La Lega) which is mostly hard right, originally regional separatist and the first political party to elect a black Nigerian immigrant as a Senator.  The old Berlusconi right is still in the game, but La Lega is claiming the right to organize the next governing coalition.

Between the left parties and right wing ones is a populist movement called Five Stars. 

A lot of commentators have spent a lot of time telling us that nobody in 5 Stars knows what they want.  Funny that because one of the main 5 Star demands is for the leadership of the traditional parties to resign, for corruption to be investigated and controlled and for the politics of the country to be renewed.  The Italian and world press should be able understand this. 

Five Stars has the largest vote of any party, and they too are claiming the right for their very young leader to form the next government. 

The traditional left took it on the nose with the ruling Democratic Party being reduced from government to minor party status in one jump.  They are not talking about forming any government and have so far rejected any ideas of doing so with Five Stars. 

This traditional left is the political movement that was once the Italian Communist Party which was the largest Communist party west of the Iron Curtain.  It is mostly represented today by the Democrats.  They are a large social and trade union movement that has deep roots in all of Italy today, despite their defeat at the polls this week.  There are a couple other more moderate and harder line left groups that round out the small delegation left of deputies elected in 2018. 

While the Democrats still had the name “Communist” and used the hammer and sickle as its symbol it was also the most liberal of the pro-Soviet parties being one of the two major developers of “Eurocommunism”, the pro-democracy, civil rights, anti-Soviet occupation of Afghanistan movement of the European left that was essentially moderate.  The Europe they were talking about was WESTERN Europe of the then 12 member EEC, which we called the Common Market that became the European Union of 27 members today.   There were some uneasy meetings in Moscow, especially when their gay youth wing leader turned up.  They were center left before they took the name “Democratic Party of the Left” and after they became just the “Democrats’ and dropped the traditional icon from their party symbol, they became a party of both center left and grand coalition governments. 

The Italian Communists plays a role in Italy similar to the one the Socialists and Social Democrats play in other nations of Europe and have joined the “Socialist Club” by having serious electoral defeat this year. 

Nowhere was that defeat any worse than in France.  While Macron and his new Republican Rally movement did well in the second rounds of their presidential and legislative elections, they did so with much fractured first rounds.  In most cases, including the president’s election, the top two to come out of the first round represented well under 40% of the voters.  It is one thing to pick the lesser evil candidate, it is another to have actively voted for a different party just weeks before.  The turnout for the second round of the French election was a record low. 

A French record low turnout is much higher than we ever get in the US. 

Also, it is hard to tell how much support Macron had because of his own proposals and how much the French people were fed up with business as usual from the political parties that seemed to recycle idea and disappointing politicians.  Macron is similar to Five Stars in that. The failed outgoing president was a Socialist. 

As Macron’s original vote was not so large, that leaves the majority of French people allied with other political parties, all of whom seem to have decided to have a crisis at the same time. The Republicans and the Socialists have new leaders and new defections. The leadership decisions among the socialists is still not over really and there are many splinter groups. The ultra-right has the same leader, Marine Le Pen, new defections and are considering a new name.  The new left seems to be on the same track as back during their unexpected better showing in the presidential first round.  They are a smaller party, but they seem to be stable when others are not.    

Altogether, all the traditional French political parties together don’t add up to even half of the legislature, so Macron and his people are doing what they want.  Given the slowness of the German government to negotiate their renewal, Brexit, Italian stalemates, and the Trump lack of effectiveness, French President Macron has become a leader in European and international affairs.  While our press has been discussing Stormy Daniels and Russians in the back room, Macron has been an effective negotiator with Russia in places like the Mid-East for example.  His trips to China and India could use some better US coverage too. 

If anything stands out for Germany it is the awkward slowness of their movement to the inevitable checkout line and the strangely poor ability of very skilled German politicians to act skillfully. 

Six months ago they held an election.  For all that time the long established existing Grand Coalition, which the Germans call GroKo, has run the country as a caretaker government. 

In those elections the Free Democrats got a few fewer votes than expected, as did Merkel’s Christian Democrats in their two parts.  The right wing AfD, Alliance for Germany, got more votes than expected in earlier polls moving from an expected 7% to an elected 13%.  The Socialists were not doing well in the earlier local Landtag votes under Martin Schultz’ leadership and continued to do poorly nationally, but maybe not as bad as before, or as bad as expected.  The Left and the Green parties got about the same percentages as before and as in the local elections, and like their French counterparts, they are small but stable parts of German political life.  The difference in results means that the expected Free Democrat - Christian Democrat majority was short a few votes. 

Somehow Italy has the reputation for its proportional representation politics being a soap opera, but Germany is also a show worth watching.  If NBC does not cover it, maybe Netflix should consider a miniseries.

A renewal of the GroKo would have made the anti-immigrant Alliance for Germany the official opposition.  Martin Schultz opted out on a renewal of GroKo and said that he personally would not take a ministerial post.  This would have been good for the Social Democrats because they would have not been part of the bad government to come and Martin Schultz could maybe rescue his career.  It would be good for the country to keep the Alliance for Germany marginalized.

Then somebody came up with the idea of a “Jamaica” coalition of the Black, for the Social Christians, the Yellow of the Free Democrats and the Green of, well we know who. 

Of course that was never going to work and it took a long time not to do so. 

Finally Martin Schulz reversed himself and tried to become Foreign Minister, kicking aside the Social Democrats former leader Sigmar Gabriel who held the job. By the time the scandal of that was over Schultz had to resign as party leader and withdraw his name for any cabinet post but stays on as a member of Bundestag.  

I would have asked him to resign as party leader just because he lost the elections so badly. That would be England.

But musical chairs was not over. The Socialists had to hold a party vote to join a renewed GroKo and then they still kicked Gabriel aside.  A new Social Democrat has the foreign affairs job, Heiko Maas moving over from Justice ….   

Six months later we have the same two parties in power, as everyone knew would have to happen, and both of them are weaker and less credible than they were. Alliance for Germany plays the opposition role.

Merkel now looks up from her desk to find Macron taking more lead around Europe.  Macron looks up from his desk asking if Germany is finally going to help him advocate for the Europe that they both want. 

And what a mixed up Europe it is.  Prime Minister May seems able to do everything wrong with Brexit and is not on the road to a deal.  The only good news out of the U.K. local politics is that the Corbyn branch of the Labor Party has stayed viable and in charge.  Still no talk about political reform such as proportional representation or at least run offs instead of first-past-the-post voting.  Germany, Italy and France may have their problems, but at least the public got to vote on it.  We should expect the next government of the U.K. to continue to represent a minority of the people. 

Spain still seems to be disjointed.  The poor handling of the Catalan crisis has promised us continued crisis and obvious backlash.  There are two Five Start type parties in Spain, one on the left and one on the right.  They too had a long hard time to get the last center right government to continue in place and the final solution included some internal Socialist Party back stabbing. 

Moving past Portugal, which has an old fashioned left coalition government we see problems in Greece being on the left but not able to do anything about it because their lives are run by the European Central Bank and private banks.  Similar bank imposed post ‘07 austerity is happening in Ireland and Portugal, but Greece it is a crisis with another crises on top of it.  That is the crisis of massive waves of immigrants fleeing the ever more catastrophic Mid East and other trouble spots of war and collapsed economies. This is happening in many other European nations, the difference in Greece is one of intensity and economic means to deal with it. 

Merkel’s original wir schaffen das” (we can make it happen) acceptance of a million refugees backfired politically inside and outside of her Christian Democratic movement as well as inside and outside of Germany. Public sentiment mixes the recent terrorism in France, Germany and Belgium with the refuge / immigration situation not matter how unrelated. Any crime involving these immigrants, especially sexual assault, has become part of the drumbeat of the right wing press. Acts of violence against foreigners has become common and is also a staple of local press reports. 

Such are the real economic results of globalization and the real after effects of expanded western influence in the political and military spheres.  One political cartoon shows a conveyor belt bringing refugees to Europe from the Mid-East, while carrying weapons back. 

That wave of immigration is part of what sent Germany and Italy to the right, affects France and has been part of the xenophobic right wing shifts in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.  The shift to the right in those three places is pronounced, but hardly exclusive to them in Eastern or Western Europe, and only partly related to immigration issues.  The refugee crisis has been a boon to right wing opportunists. 

And good old democratic, liberal Austria finds itself with a Green for ceremonial president, a very young conservative for prime minister in a government that has a large contingent from a right wing party that has roots going back to the original German speaking fascists. 

At the risk of generalizing about what is too complicated to make general understandings of, one could call the overall trend in Europe to be to the right, and the left that survives is tending more left.  It is no wonder that there are so many people who are just fed up. 

The free trade miracle that did not happen in the Mid-East and Africa, did not happen in Europe either.  For over a generation, too many people have lost their established and stable employment the way US auto workers did.  Working people in Europe would not be turning to the ultra-right if they had job security and basic welfare for themselves.  In their real lives, they have watched their comfortable lifestyle turn into an aggressive competition with a lot of people ending up selected against. 

Liberal politics and liberal free trade is failing working people and they know it. 

European politics is a mess because they do not know what to do about it. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sexual harassment and the society that looked the other way

Hey, isn’t that us?

Am I the only one who does not see any surprise that our vile institutions of social, political and economic power attract so many vile people committing acts of sexual harassment?

There is no doubt that many working class men, common men, are also sexual predators, rapists, pedophiles, just plain weird, and/or practitioners of disgusting, uninvited sexual intrusion.

But is it somehow a surprise to find so many high in the ranks of our entertainment industry, news media, business structures and government? It is not as if our key institutions have an ethical leg to stand on when they are not sexually harassing underlings or discriminating against women and minorities in their power pyramid status career climbing.

Today I was listening to a radio report about women who work in our national security who have written an open letter to complain about the abusive sexual environment there. I believe them.

Well, there is this myth that our national security sectors are somehow serving and protecting the country but it is only a myth, a cover story and for some a self-delusional account so that individuals can rationalize their crimes and stay in denial about what roles our nation plays in the world. There is some militaristic right wing spin that patches up the sides of the stories that leak out and up into the public view, but every time the curtain gets pulled back we find all kinds of immoral, illegal and inhumane things being done by employees of our government’s nation security agencies and State Department. We call ourselves a shining city on a hill. Much of the world knows us as a repressive nightmare.

If I started to make a list from Honduras to Syria this would end up being another rant about international affairs, and I have already written too many of those.

Some contrived arguments are made to justify everything from overthrowing governments, to death squads and all kinds of minor international crimes and the press tends to call those actions “past mistakes”, “excesses”, or “unfortunately necessary” and makes sure to never use the word IMPERIALSM.

So there is sexual harassment inside our national security agencies?
Do they do anything ethical otherwise?

And there is sexual harassment inside the press too?
  • The press that we just mentioned does not tell us about what our government does overseas?
  • The press that has been consolidated behind a few large transnational corporations?
  • The press that had been converted to television infotainment presented by millionaire TV stars?
Oh, yeah, THAT press! The one that refuses to cover the actions of large transnational corporations, does not ask elected officials where they got their campaign dollars from, the press that sweeps criticism under the carpet behind “he said-she said” reporting because they are part of the inside crowd, THAT press has people in it who treat sex as something they can demand.
What a surprise!
They were such good people otherwise.

But why stop there? As some have pointed out, there is probably more sexual harassment of maids and fast food workers than there is of movie stars, talking heads, CIA agents and women who take the campaign donations and get what passes for elected in our country.

We are talking about the fast food sector and hotel sector. Both are dominated by large corporations and franchising organizations. Both have lobbyists employed in keeping the minimum wage down, and all wages down. Both have a long history of union busting. I do not doubt for a second that the reports of rampant sexual harassment is true. Is that the only condemnable activity in that part of the economy?

By inference, what kind of sexual harassment is going on inside of Walmart where there are no unions and people are desperate to have those low paying Walmart jobs because otherwise they would be in even deeper poverty? 

What about other parts of the economy where corporate America is determined to not have their oil pipelines or investment banking controlled by government in any way? All good over there in the banks and oil companies? No discrimination? No sexual abuse?

When it comes down to it, there is probably lots of sexual harassment and abuse inside academia, the military, the nonprofit sector and about any part of our power structures. It has been exposed in our churches and now we are surprised to find it inside our money soaked, career mad political parties? How did they find time to break away from constantly raising campaign funds and talking to lobbyists to sexually harass people? The ethics are no surprise, but aren’t they busy?

Maybe that is true about any power structure, especially the more corrupt they become, the more autocratic their practices, the more they develop fiefdoms of untouchable powerful people and the less they are held accountable for what they do as a group and the less that the individuals who do it have to answer for. We have been the nation of the stone wall and CYA for a long time. If you are a police officer there seems to never be consequences for killing a black man and our society gets offended when a football player points that out during the militaristic display that somehow has become how we start a game. It is hardly just sexual harassment that our powerful have not been held accountable for.

And that says a lot about men, all men, and as a man, I start by looking inward with suspicion. This is a good time for all of us men to question ourselves. It is always a good time for everyone, on every subject, but I am a middle aged white man and one should be slow to absolve oneself.   

But we should also look inward with suspicion at the society we have become where so much power goes unchecked and un-criticized. So much sexual harassment has gone unchecked for a long time now and it is great that something is finally being said.

But let’s stop and think a moment.

What kind of institutions do we have?
We sure seem to have a lot of sociopaths doing quite well climbing the social ladder.

What else is going on, unchecked and un-criticized?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

It ain't the Russians

And now the 21St century version of the "evil-Russians-out-to-get-us" is the tam tam of the latest war drums.

Who knows who was in bed with which Russians when or why in this last election farce? For the sake of argument, let's just suppose that all the accusations are true, even if the evidence shown to the public so far is pretty lame.

So, they bought some Facebook ads and ran bots? How much are they accused of spending? Most of the numbers I hear on NPR are in the hundreds of thousands.

Is that all?
Hillary alone spent a billion.

Wow, those Rubles must pack a punch if they had any influence on our cash soaked election!

Our elections were more of a circus than a farce. We had the clowns in center ring, one became president, the do nothing press was in a side show of "he said-she said" and the ramped up rhetoric was on the high wire getting all the audience attention. Everyone with dollars to donate got shares in Ringmaster Inc.

How much did the oil interests spend? What manipulations were they involved in? Wall Street? Walmart? The Koch brothers? Some of these companies have more assets than Russia's gross domestic product. Apple has more cash on hand than the Federal Reserve. How much did our own unscrupulous plutocrats spend? And how did they spend it across local, state and national contests where one presidential candidate alone collected a billion American Dollars?

The Russians?

How did those Ruskies become the assumed enemy of all Americans again? A lot of the explanations for that sound pat and categorical when the facts tell of a more two sided story. 

To hear our corporate Democrats tell it, the Russian Federation is attacking America, our elections, our interests and our foreign friends. They would rather talk about the Russians with web bots than the flood of domestic campaign donations and their own spending tactics in social media.  They certainly do not want to hear any criticisms of the Obama-Clinton foreign policies. 

Mitigating circumstances for the Putin government includes their annoyance with us breaking our promises around Kosovo independence, being able to beat ISIS in Syria, displeasure with the Ukrainian "revolution" doing things like outlawing the Russian language and some discomfort with us and our NATO friends picking the Russian boarder to install a tactical missile battery. Oh, and there is that little thing about sticking USA noses into the Yeltsin election.

Looking at our post cold war policies towards Russia one would think that the State Department had some other long term reasons to oppose Russia that has little to do with Communism. 

And what makes Russia so important?

Canada is our #1 trading partner. They have companies that do things like monopolize world mining or build oil pipelines along with some of the biggest banks in the world. Don't they have lobbyists? For most of the world, from China to England going either way, their economic relationship with the US is critical. Why wouldn't their governments try to help their businesses find a way to support politicians who support them? Maybe they had more than a couple hundred thousand dollars and social networking bots.  As it appears, some of that fake news and those fake accounts have been paid for in US dollars. 

Advocacy groups backing any number of nations such as Israel or Saudi Arabia find ways to influence the media and make sure that they target their own donation dollars to feed those who help them. There are probably a good ten nations that spent more than Russia on our presidential elections alone, and then there was all the spending down ballot. 

A few years ago we were all supposed to be upset that some people from China were involved in campaign donation based lobbying. We were very concerned because "the Chinese" were doing what our own rich people do. Now we are supposed to be scandalized because "the Russians" are playing the same game.

All the scare tactic language in the world doesn't change the fact that the real problem was never people from Russia or China buying our politicians, it is the fact that our elected officials are for sale.

In the big picture, the Russian Government spending a million dollars on Facebook is chump change.

Our elections are under constant assault, bit it ain't the Russians, it's the money.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Don’t tell Catalans to speak white

“Speak White!”

By that he meant to “speak English”.

My friends had told me that some English Canadians would say such a thing. I had never seen that done in person before. At that time one would have already assumed such blatant bigotry to be a thing of the past in Quebec and I am sure it continues to be a thing of the past today. 

The middle age guy in business slacks and an open collar shirt had made it clear that this kind of anti-French chauvinism was not a thing of the past for him as I was trying to find an address in English speaking west Montreal. It seems that I was more than geographically lost. I had asked for help in French, which was the language of two thirds of the city and ninety percent of the province. For an answer I got one of my early lessons on how minority ethnic groups can be treated. 

Of the various forms of entitlement that dominant groups have, one of the common ones is to make the dominated speak the boss’ language.

Catalans have been told to “speak white” too.
Let’s not join the chorus of those telling them that. 

I’ll be very clear that I do not know much about Catalonia. The only time I went there my reaction was a great big internal sigh. “Yet another Romance language?” In school one learns that there are five Romance languages and in Europe one learns that there are a few more. Catalan was not so hard to decipher when it was written and nobody ever gave me any attitude when I spoke with them in Central American Spanish. 

I know even less of the history, but I do know that under the Fascist Franco dictatorship their local language was basically outlawed and democracy has meant a return of Catalan to the schools. To “speak white” in Catalonia is to speak Spanish.

I understand that there is a regional authority based on the constitution that was written after the dictatorship back in ‘78, and that the last election gave a majority of seats in that local assembly to nationalists and separatists of at least two types. It is they who decided to hold a referendum on independence.

We all know that the Spanish police attacked voting stations, at times violently, and that the Spanish government seized funds and threatened and jailed mayors who were hosting the referendum vote because we got to watch that part in the world news. 

A big justification of all Spanish actions is that the referendum is not “legal” which is echoed as an arrogant lecture by the BBC and clever background by NPR. In our country we should not need to think very hard to remember that when Rosa Parks sat down, she too was breaking the law. Legal in this case is not the exact words in their post Franco constitution but the interpretation that a court made of it. Do we remember “separate but equal”? 

Before the Spanish authorities sent in the police to stop people from voting, the opinion polls showed that independence would have probably lost. Less than half of the people who could have voted did so and most all of those votes went towards a YES for independence. The majority did not get to vote and we can assume that most of them would have voted NO and some probably would have voted YES. It is hard to say what the vote would be today considering the obvious backlash after the Spanish police violently suppressed their referendum and the large number of voters who were seriously hurt.

One has to admire those ten percent of voters who risked police repression to go vote NO.

No doubt that there are many more complications. It would be surprising if the map of the Catalan autonomous area corresponded at all times to where ethnic Catalans live today and there must be a large number of residents from other parts of Spain as well as immigrants from inside and outside of Europe.

There were probably a good number of people who did not care that much.

There is an open border between Catalonia and France because both Spain and France are full participants in Europe. They have the European Union free flow of goods and people, they both participate in the open customs and visa union and the are both using the Euro as their currency. This is real Europe, not the half-in half-out version of Europe we hear so much about from the English language media, especially the BBC. Their lives are very integrated and that border is now an old formality where a car no longer has to even stop.

So, if Catalonia voted to succeed and they negotiated a deal with Spain so that both could stay in Europe with the same treaty obligations, then what exactly would be the big difference?

And now I hear all kinds of people saying why Catalonia should not be independent, and by that I do not mean the Spanish government.

By all kinds of people I mean that I hear all kinds of our fellow Americans saying why Catalonia should not be independent.

(We read it in the overseas press too. Let’s keep in mind that minority regional national groups exist all across Europe and the world, so that many anti Catalan voices are really anti-Tibetan voices, anti-Scottish voices, anti-Corse voices and other similar voices from across the continent not wanting to allow in Spain what they do not want to allow at home.)

We outsiders do not have standing to make a judgment on the independence of nations.

The value of the independence cause is not for Americans to decide one way or the other. Not in Catalonia and not anywhere else. The negotiations that would lead to such a separation are between the Catalan government and the central government in Madrid.

Some international law makes it totally appropriate for our government to have a word and a vote on issues that come before the security council of the United Nations. Part of that law covers civil rights. When the Spanish government rules that the Catalan independence referendum is not legal, well that is their internal affair. When the Spanish Civil Guard police are beating voters and arresting people for wanting to be independent, we have a probable violation of the international charter on human rights. If the Catalan government made a request for help based on that, the UN should hear them out. There are also international courts that do not involve the USA including one for human rights in Europe, where a case could be heard. Those courts may come into play before this is over.

What is all the stranger is to see our chattering classes take the side of the Spanish government or the Catalan separatists when we should leave them alone.

But is it not part of our US culture to give ourselves the right to judge? Isn’t our never ending problem with Cuba based on the idea that we have a right to tell them what kind of a government is right or wrong for Cuba? Our right wing says the Communists are bad and that justifies trying to force regime change and our left wing says that the Castros have done a lot of good things and should be left alone. Neither seems clear that it is up to Cubans to decide, not us.

I wonder what such people will say now to Puerto Rican’s who want independence. How does membership in the United States family look in Puerto Rico today? Will we also have a public discourse to tell them what they should think? Will US politicians have the gall to tell them not to hold a referendum on statehood or independence? Maybe instead of judging Catalan politics, we should watch and learn so that we might do better ourselves? 

One commentator on NPR went as far as to say that Catalonia (as if it were a single person) has no claim on independence because it has been part of Spain since some takeover centuries ago and that things have been fine since. I guess having their local language outlawed for a fifty year dictatorship is part of what that person calls “fine” ever since. In Quebec French was never outlawed and things were still not “fine”.

On line I have heard arguments from Americans against Catalan independence based on such things as the fact that Catalonia has a good economy. Does one have to have a bad economy to be a nation apart?

“Did I see oppression in Catalonia when I was there?” That was a “counter argument” that another on-line correspondent sent my way. No I did not, but I did see that they were a different ethnic group from the Spanish. Does one have to be oppressed to justify independence? 

That same person listed two Spanish government threats as reasons to doubt the legitimacy of the local parliament’s call for a negotiation with Madrid. The threats are to encourage businesses to leave Catalonia and to block any eventual Catalan membership in the European Union.

The same kind of threatening actions in a business contract dissolution would get you a lawsuit for coercion and in family court it would earn you a stay away order.

Other voices seem to think that Catalonia needs to be “free”. Since when did US support for separatism in Europe equal “freedom”? Do we mean human rights by that freedom? And since when is it our business to take such a position in our politics? We have standing to demand that Spain respect the human rights accords that we have all signed. We have standing to oppose a military conflict or insurgency when democratic and peaceful dialog is possible. We have no legal or ethical cause to say one group of foreigners should or shouldn’t be independent from another.

That is sort of like advising a couple on getting divorced. Unless something is seriously wrong or you are close enough that it involves you, one stays out of it.

If by “freedom” we mean a better state of self-governance and higher level of civil rights, then the US record is poor in Europe. Some understanding that minority linguistic rights are human rights would go a long way to improve our foreign relations, and for example, it could correct our misguided involvement in the Ukraine.

Our US press would be giving us better reporting about the conflict in the eastern Ukraine if our media would remember that part of the context that started this war was a Ukrainian provisional government outlawing the easterners use of Russian as their local language and also shut down their regional political parties. Those people have been Russian speakers since before any of those national governments, or our own nation, existed.

We are poorly served by this kind of partial reporting and we are seriously mislead by the charlatans that pass off one sided legalese and distorted half-truths as some kind of analysis when what they are really doing is finding justifications for an aggressive attitude towards Russia. To listen to NPR and the BBC, the Ukrainian crisis is 100% Russian involvement and they skip quickly over the part about how the people involved are not all ethnic Ukrainians as if that is unimportant. 

Reporting on a series of conflicts around Europe suffers this blindness to the needs of regional ethnic groups. Most of what we think we know about Ukraine and ex-Yugoslavia is too segmented to be of any value.

Somehow the statements of the head of the Serbian government did not make the news here. In Serbia the question asked about Catalonia was simple. I’ll paraphrase it to: 

“Why don’t the Catalans have the right to even ask Spain for negotiated independence when the Kosovo government was given the right to unilaterally declare independence without holding a vote and without negotiating with Serbia?”

“Why” is because our governments and their apologists have one set of rules for their friends and another for anyone else. Justifications are made on the fly. National rights are called paramount in one conflict, but declared outdated in another and most of our press just echoes the nonsense.

Ethically we have a chance to find some clarity about one of the most common crimes committed by majority groups all over the world, the crime of the denial of dignity and self-determination to the minority. There are lots of pros and cons about independence but I do not see any pros in the Spanish government making it effectively illegal to even ask for independence and I do not see how that is not political repression.

What Madrid has to say is all over the news. The Prime Minister and the King have told Catalans to stop wanting independence, that they should not ask for it and that they are not even allowed to hold a vote on the matter. Requesting negotiations has been met with a move to dissolve their local autonomy. 

We should not be judging the issue and our government should not be taking sides but we certainly have an opportunity to reflect on the ethics involved in Spain and here at home. And one of the things we should push for is that our government should not take sides other than the sides of respect for human rights, peace between nations and respect for other countries right to resolve their own affairs. For the USA that would be a three part policy change.

One can find a lot of press talking about why Catalonia should not hold a vote, should not want independence and should not do anything outside of the way a Madrid court interprets a constitution that Barcelona never ratified. And that talk is in Spanish, English and French.

Ask yourself how much news you have heard coming directly from the Catalan government or even from any Catalonian analysts, journalists, and union leaders or folk on the street. This is a problem with our media most of the time. Ask yourself the same question about the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine. How often do we hear a report included their views directly?

This is the same talk I got to hear in Montreal, in English, about the Québécois, in Nicaragua, in Spanish, about the Atlantic Coast and in China, in Mandarin, about the Tibetans. All talk from the majority telling us that their minority is doing fine and should not be complaining. 

In effect, the minority groups get told that they should all shut up and speak white.

And the sub text is that “speaking white” is not to speak about their national rights.

We as a country should have some principals to guide our foreign policy. We don’t. Given the economic and military interests that dominant our government we won’t change this double standard by which we judge the rights of national minorities any time soon. In fact, minority rights is not even the main problem with our foreign policy. Our country does not respect the sovereignty of other nations, dictates terms, advocates for the interests of our affluent plutocrats and business sectors and throws around its weight with the world's largest military. Issues like regional autonomy pale in comparison with the structural problems.

So it is up to us as a people to bring some sanity, compassion, ethics and law into our public discourse when we have such an event as we have in Spain right now.

As a culture we need to rid ourselves of our feeling of entitlement that allows us to judge and lecture these national minorities or their majorities. As Americans, we need to stop thinking we are the judge of any foreign government. Not in Cuba, not in Spain and not in Barcelona.

We could start by listening to our own national minorities who are asking for redress without the arrogance of us telling them what their problems are and what rights they do and don’t have to protest injustice. That would be a big change for a country that can hardly tolerate a black football player kneeling because our police are trigger happy shooting young black men. 

Internationally we need to learn that the way to counter the right wing discourse that dictates to other nations is not a left wing judgment of other peoples. That too would be a big change for a people who have dominated Latin America for generations and do things like invade Iraq.

But maybe, just maybe, we could look into the better part of our history and pull out a principal that we could use to guide ourselves in respect for other people's national rights:

Government with the consent of the governed.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

We need to live with fire and not let it burn us down

When a disaster like the current outbreak of California fires takes place there are an inevitable number of people throwing spin and the spin we should least believe is that these outbreaks of fire could not be prevented.

The fires cannot be prevented, but the disasters can.

Let’s just start with:

Much of California is a natural fire ecology.

You will hear a lot of lip service to that and a lot of jargon thrown around more than you will hear about how our state planning and regulations are ready for the inevitable fires.

So how could we have kept this from being a disaster?
I’ll propose five expensive parts to a plan that could well work.

Part one: Stop building buildings that burn.

“Oh we have done that and it did not solve everything” is part of the CYA discourse and that is basically not true. We did not get fireproof building codes, we got “fire resistant” building codes.

Sure, we don't have shake wooden roofs any more, but what we do have is not fireproof.

Fire resistant shingles on plywood held up by cheap pine burns quite well and the standards that claimed it was sufficient are just bogus. Walls made of press board held together with “fire resistant” insulation paper and covered with some kind of plastic siding or stucco, also burn.

And unfortunately you will see block after block of buildings built to this new “better” code burned to the ground in Santa Rosa.

Roofs made of ceramic tile and held up by metal are what is fireproof. You will find them in the San Diego area, but only after some serious suffering and loss of homes there. Walls made of cement or adobe don’t burn so well either. That would be a standard that might help.

Cheap is probably the word to follow here. I wonder who lobbied for those watered down standards that allow builders and developers to make so much money, so fast, building cheap buildings for a hot market?

I heard one government apologist on the radio saying that even concrete buildings with cement roofs would have burned in this fire. Yeah? Show us one that did.

Fireproof building is not new, it is ancient. Those old adobe buildings with red tile roofs? How many of those have burned to the ground due to wildfire?

Part two: The choice is big fire or small fire, but not no fire.

It seems that every time a fire like this happens the forestry experts get out and tell folk that either we do proscribe small burns or the fuel will build up. So, let’s start our own small fires to avoid the big ones.

Part three: Fire ecology areas should have fire ecology plants.

The native plants of our area have evolved to survive. They do not produce so much fuel and when there is a small fire, the fires that we should have, they open their fire resistant seed pods and plant the regrowth. Some of our native plants only can reproduce when there is a fire.

In practice that means enough of the grass fields and non-native trees already. 

They may grow well in our climate, but they also burn well in our fires. Too well. And stop planting that stuff as landscaping around our “fire resistant” buildings.

Part four: Get ready, get proactive, actively prevent and isolate the danger.

Well of course everyone wants that right? But our local and state budgets don’t show prevention as a priority. Right now people are acting surprised. Any state office holder who is surprised by this set of fires should not be. They could just listen to their own excuses.

“The rains created a lot of fuel”. “The winds whip up a forge”. “There was unusually high heat”.

None of this was not predicted and by the heart wave in early July of this year it was obvious that too much grass fuel had built up along with other types of fuels. This was so obvious that the cattle industry trucked their animals north to get them out of the dry, high fire risk, areas.

Note that the lack of controlled burns and lack of native plant restoration is happening on top of the drought, the rains, the unusual growth and the following heat wave. Global warming has an influence here in only in the statistics and intensity; the basic environmental science was figured out before any of us were born.

Informed land management people have known how bad the problem was this year for a long time and the risk of this kind of disaster was predicted. Our state did not prevent or prepare.

Part five: Spend the money it takes.

The press is now being filled with speculation about where the fire started and who started it. This is a diversion. If a tanker truck turned over and spilled, we would not blame that fire on the pilot light of a nearby water heater. The conditions that our state authorities allowed to develop were just as flammable as a gasoline spill. Can anyone doubt that now?

When such conditions build up, it takes work to build the buffer zones between habitations and open lands. It takes money to remove fuel, do prescribe burns, and replant with fire ecology vegetation around the key buffer zones and waterways.

And it takes some time. This work should have started years ago and this year we should have been on an emergency footing since that June-July heat wave.

And when conditions get as bad as they have been in California since July, get ready.

Mow the damn grass in key locations if you have to. Grass fields need buffer zones and intense fire control practices. Other than move the cows to safety, what was done?

Have people, materials and equipment pre-positioned in the danger areas. Calling for extra support after the fire starts is a bit late. It would have been better to have everyone on guard for a fire that did not happen than to be rushing in help as we are now. We need to budget for what we know is coming sooner or later.

So, I offer these five proposals intending to start the conversation. It would be good to hear other proposals if you want to shoot these down. If not this, then what? Right now what we are doing is tragically and obviously too little too late and I am proposing we avoid a “next time”.

My background is as an administrator and activist. It is time to hear from the scientific community that is willing to speak up and not afraid that their funding is at risk. It is time for those who work the land to speak up. It is time for those who actually build the buildings to speak up. The only voices that we should not give much credence to are the spin doctors and lobbyists representing those who oppose any regulation that curbs their profits.

I can be accused of proposing that people be told what they can do with their own private property. 

Yes, we need to tell people what to do with private property in land management the same way we tell that not to build a dynamite factory next to a school yard or throw raw sewage into the river that runs past their home.

Ownership has its rights, but it also has its responsibilities. If you owned a Rembrandt and decided to cut it into coasters to sell, well you might have the right to do that, but I doubt you would have much public support. If you own a stand of redwoods that are older than our culture, you fall under laws of stewardship and are not allowed to cut them indiscriminately.

The ownership of real estate, farm and city, has a bit of both types of law applied to it. On the one hand we have stewardship obligations and on the other we are prohibited from public endangerment. In the case of building and land management regulations as they relate to fire we have both the moral task of conserving our collective natural heritage and we need to stop building and growing fire hazards.

Addressing conservation and fire control we can also give ourselves a healthier environment in biodiversity, biomass and carbon capturing. Of all the things said about global climate change, one thing is sure: we need to plant more trees and protect more waterways. The kind of land management regulations we will need to manage our fire ecology home state will help with both. 

Now we will get talked down to by our political class who will read this and then lecturer us about budget and political realities.

Realities like why they won't stand up to the lobbyists who resist reasonable regulation.
By that I mean the builders and agribusiness.

Realities like why they don’t really have a decent fire management budget or much of any land management leadership, authority or financing. The buck gets passed to the local authorities who are starved for funds and the private agribusiness and building sector, who are part of the problem.

Those who will lecture us about the realities of money and politics have delivered to us the realities of loss of life, homes and livelihoods.

The first step in preventing the next disaster is to know that this one should not have happened.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Germany slides right

Germany slides right

One of the main results of the 2017 German federal elections is that the four party legislature became a six party legislature.  The two new parties come from the right.  They are the moderate, liberal Free Democratic Party and the nationalist, anti immigration ultra right party called the Alternative for Germany.

That puts Merkel’s right wing Christian Democrats in the middle of the right.  

When the world press says that Merkel “won” this election what they mean is that her party got more votes than any other. That is 33%, down 8.6% from the last election.  She also “won” because she will probably be able to form a governing coalition.  

Almost all the government's we have known of West Germany and all of the governments of the united Germany have been coalitions.  The only reason that I say “almost” is because I don’t know the post war history enough to be sure.  I can not think of a post WW2 German government that was not a coalition in the west.  The east was a mono party state.  

In order of size, those the reaching the minimum of 5% of the votes required to hold proportionally allocated seats in Bundestag, the main house of the German legislature whose majority elects the Federal Chancelor, are as follows: 

Christian Democrats 32.9, down 8.6

Social Democrats 20.8, down 4.9

Alternative for Germany 13, up 8.3 first time qualifying

Free Democrats 10, up 5.6 and coming back into office

Left 9, up .4

Green 9, up .6 

Source Spiegle on line 

The two main political parties that have usually held the office of Federal Chanclelor and have always been part of the ruling coalition both lost ground.  

One of the two new right wing groups to qualify for representation, the Free Democrats, is an old traditional party that has held many posts and been part of many coalitions in the past.  It is no surprise that they are back in.  The poor results last time that lost their representation have been recovered and they return to their normal size and place.  

The other one, the Alternative for Germany, is the big part of the slide to the right coming into the system for the first time with a strong showing and taking the third largest share of the votes.  This group is correctly indentified with our own alt-right, the National Front in France and other ultra right wing movements that have been making gains across Europe.   

With a combined left vote of 40% between Social Democrats, Left and Greens, the German left does not have enough votes to govern by themselves in a Red-Red-Green Coaltion, but they are still a mainstream part of German politics.  Note that they form many a local Land government in different coalitions.  

This election represents dissatisfaction with the status quo. The two parties that lost votes are the two parties that form the current government coalition.  

The harder left did not gain much, but it did not lose votes either. 

So the big move was from the two main, traditional government parties, to the liberal center right and the hard line far right.  The vote for the liberal Free Democrats was not much of a surprise and is more in keeping with their normal share of the electorate.  That leaves us with the biggest news being that the hard right comes in taking votes from the status quo movement.  

So, who is this new Alternative for Germany?  It would be fair to refer to them as being more of an anti-immigrant party than a typical far right party with a strong anti socialist bias and hard line right wing politics on a series of subjects.  Inside their movement there are more and less hard line members and divisions strong engough to have one of their founders leave the movement before they have even been sworn in.  

So who are the 13% of Germans who voted for the hard right Alternative for Germany?  

Mostly Social Christians, but also significant numbers from the Social Democrats and minor numbers from the other movements.  

Many from the former East Germany and from Bavaria, but really getting significant votes from most of the the country. 

More men than women, but many women voted for them and their main leaders are women. 

More workers than professionals, but again, the numbers are a tendency that does not define their whole electorate.  All social classes and education levels had a perscentage of hard right voters.  

Source Zeit

And what should we expect?  

In Germany we should expect all the other parties represented to shun and isolate the ultra right.  

The Social Democrats have decided not to stay in the government, taking themselves out of the conversations to form the next coalition.  They have good internal reasons to do so, but they also have a national reason.  As the second largest party they will now form the official opposition.  If they had joined the government, the ultra right would have held that official role. 

The Christian Democrats will probably form a government with the Free Democrats and the Greens, what the Germans call a Jamaica Coaltion for the party colors Black-Yellow-Green.  Remember that the German Greens are not so far left and have served in government before. 

It is noticeable that the news graphics assign the color light blue to the Alternative for Germany and I have not seen the traditional color for fascists in Germany, brown.  

Germany’s support for more refugees coming and their participation in the French government initiative for a stronger, more federal Europe will both be in a bit of trouble.  While the mainstream German parties will not accommodate the hard right movement, they will not miss the message either.  The anti Europe and anti immigrant feelings in Germany extend way past those who feel so strong about it that they are willing for vote for the ultra right.  We have already seen a shift in positions from inside of the Christian Democrats.  

And a lot will not change.  Merkel will go on to be the longest serving federal Chancelor.  German politics will be plural, colorful and peppered with some new drama, but in the end their system of political pluralism and proportional representation is inherently stable. 

Note: In earlier blogs I predicted this outcome with smaller numbers for the hard right based on Land elections earlier in the year.  Between then and now the main change was Merkel’s and her Christian Demorcrats decline in popularity, especially over the issue of the one million refugees Merkel accepted last year.