Category Archives: International

On Possibly Independent Countries of the Future

(Ignore the syntactically unfortunate title of this post…)

Scottish independence: Cameron and Salmond strike referendum deal“:

A deal setting out terms for a Scottish independence referendum has been signed by Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond.

The agreement, struck in Edinburgh, has paved the way for a vote in autumn 2014, with a single Yes/No question on Scotland leaving the UK.

It will also allow 16 and 17-year-olds to take part in the ballot.

The SNP secured a mandate to hold the referendum after its landslide Scottish election win last year.

The UK government, which has responsibility over constitutional issues, will grant limited powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum, under a mechanism called Section 30.

The deal will also commit both governments to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Mr Salmond said the agreement would mean a referendum “made in Scotland”, while the prime minister said keeping the United Kingdom together was his number one priority.

Perhaps even less well known to Americans is the desire for Catalonian independence from Spain, though independence is a somewhat less likely outcome here:

Artur Mas, the leader of Catalonia, has a clear message for Madrid: He is serious about his threat to let the people of Spain’s most economically powerful region decide for themselves in a referendum whether they should remain a part of Spain.

[…]

That kind of posturing has thrust Mr. Mas, 56, to the forefront of Spanish politics and made Catalonia the biggest domestic headache for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is facing troubles on all sides as he tries to satisfy demands from the European Union to straighten out Spain’s economy and from Spain’s heavily indebted regions, including Catalonia.

The question now for Mr. Rajoy, and for all of Spain, is just how far Mr. Mas, a once relatively obscure politician who was elected regional president two years ago, is willing to go in posing what may be the most serious challenge to a sovereign entity in Europe since the implosion of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mr. Mas’s talk is not idle. With a $260 billion economy that is roughly the size of Portugal’s, an independent Catalonia and its 7.5 million inhabitants — 16 percent of Spain’s population — would rank ahead of a dozen of the 27 nations in the European Union. But like most of Spain’s regions, it is under great financial pressure and would like a better deal from Madrid.

In that respect, his threats may amount to nothing more than brinkmanship, as he applies to Madrid much the same tactic it has used to gain favorable treatment in its own dealings with Brussels: that is, that Catalonia, which has its own language and sense of identity, is simply “too big to fail” without calamitous consequences that no one wants to see. On Friday, Catalonia’s government raised the pressure, saying it would not be able to meet its September payments for basic services like heath care on schedule.

For a somewhat more comprehensive take on the uptick in regionalism and the rise of new independence movements in Europe, see the New York Times.

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History Does Not Exist

Check out this post from the World Policy blog, “Democracy in China: The Popularity of Alexis de Toqueville in the Middle Kingdom” (emphasis added):

First there was Confucius. Then there was Mao Zedong. And now Alexis de Tocqueville tops the must-read list for avid Chinese intellectuals and bloggers.

The French aristocrat who limned the definitive political sociology of the United States almost two centuries ago might seem an unlikely crux of controversy in 21st-century China. But it is Tocqueville’s other classic, L’ancien régime et la Révolution—with its thesis that revolutions come not when masses are downtrodden, but when their lot is improving—that has sparked today’s hot debate.

After all, China arguably offers the ideal test of Tocqueville’s thesis. As one Chinese blogger puts it, “Don’t you feel that China now is nearly a copy of France in those [prerevolutionary] days?”

Or, as Cheng Li, director of Chinese research at the Brookings Institution, putsit, Chinese developments today seriously challenge the Western academic consensus that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow found the magic wand of “resilient” (or “adaptive”) authoritarianism to maintain its power indefinitely.

[…]

What the two [main] camps [within the CCP] are feuding about is, in essence, the verity of de Tocqueville’s apercu that revolutions erupt not when people suffer the most, but rather when their lives start improving, as the lives of today’s young generation have done spectacularly. Both camps tacitly see today’s China as anancien regime that is in crisis. Hardliners contend that the only way the Chinese Communists can hang on to power is by suppressing dissent. Reformers argue instead that the only way the party can stave off being swept away by the gathering storm is to loosen its tight bureaucratic control voluntarily and invite outsiders into the political game gradually.

For his part, Cheng Li thinks that time is short, but reform now could still forestall revolution by soliciting support from the 200,000 lawyers and other newcomers in China’s increasingly pluralist society. “If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country,” he contends. “[Like Taiwan in the 1980s] the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind.” Even if there is no “real consensus for the rule of law” in the party now, “sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.”

This was an interesting post, but I want to take issue with the highlighted part, this idea of “History” with a capital “H” as something like a train moving inexorably forward.  On this view, history is more or less a force of nature, and a progressive one at that, steadily and unstoppably moving forward and making human societies more just as it does so.  To reject democracy in China–or the advances of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the ongoing wave of legalization of gay marriage in many US states, and so on–is to be on the “wrong side of history,” to be in opposition to advances that were going to arrive sooner or later.  Because they are right.

The problem with this is that there is no History, not in the sense described above.  History is just the ensemble of stories we tell about people’s individual and collective actions in their societies and the ways these have changes over time.  If ethical progress is the yardstick we use to measure these actions, we should recognize that people are capable of taking 10 steps forward, 1000 steps back, and any variation or combination thereof.  History does not march forward; it’s not even linear!  We as individuals and as groups always have highly complex sets of choices to make that can take us in a number of directions, many of which with ethically ambiguous results.  That’s not to say that progress isn’t possible–I firmly believe it is–but we have to recognize that it isn’t automatic, and it can be rolled back.

I think the “history as History” view is problematic for a number of reasons.  It’s not very good history, methodologically speaking: it obscures the actions and dynamics that led to a certain situation or result.  It makes understanding progressive outcomes’ implications for the future much more difficult.  And it leads to a certain ethical complacency.  In my research in France I recently came across a work by an American historian named Todd Shepard called The Invention of Decolonization, in which he argues that metropolitan French authorities made use of the term “decolonization” to explain Algeria’s political independence from France, which came about in 1962.  It was easier and more politically expedient, Shepard argues, to see Algeria’s independence as just one instance of a larger historical process known as “decolonization,” which sooner or later brought about the end of direct colonial relationships, than to attend to the reasons for and dynamics of French colonialism and racism and to the effects the events of Algeria’s independence would have on Algerian and French society and the relationship between the two.

This seems to me a really powerful argument and one that applies to many, many other topics.

Climate Change as Alien Invasion

Climate change and green energy are interests of Juan Cole, if not his specialty, so I figured I’d repost this remark from his “The Collapse of the Climate Change Contrarians and the End of Coal“:

Ronald Reagan used to fantasize that an alien invasion could unite human beings across capitalist and communist systems. Well, Reaganites now have their chance: Climate Change is a kind of alien invasion, threatening the human species, and here is an opportunity to put aside differences and unite to meet the biggest challenge we have faced in our 150,000 years of existence as homo sapiens sapiens. And, yes, this is an issue and a research that could and should unite Arabs and Israelis, both of them among the peoples most endangered by climate change (Egypt’s delta and Tel Aviv won’t be there after a while if we go on like this).

Image by >Rooners

Gun Control: Japan vs. USA

Japan has incredibly strict gun control laws–and an incredibly low firearm-related homicide rate to boot:

In 2008, the U.S. had over12 thousand firearm-related homicides. All of Japan experienced only 11, fewer than were killed at the Aurora shooting alone. And that was a big year: 2006 saw an astounding two, and when that number jumped to 22 in 2007, it became a national scandal. By comparison, also in 2008, 587 Americans were killed just by guns that had discharged accidentally.

Almost no one in Japan owns a gun. Most kinds are illegal, with onerous restrictions on buying and maintaining the few that are allowed. Even the country’s infamous, mafia-like Yakuza tend to forgo guns; the few exceptions tend to become big national news stories.

Shotguns and air rifles are the only guns citizens can own legally, and they have to go through a serious application and vetting process to get them:

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Check out the whole thing!

Tax Havens

The debate over Romney’s taxes is just the beginning:

James Henry, former chief economist at consultancy McKinsey and an expert on tax havens, has compiled the most detailed estimates yet of the size of the offshore economy in a new report, The Price of Offshore Revisited, released exclusively to the Observer.

He shows that at least £13tn – perhaps up to £20tn – has leaked out of scores of countries into secretive jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands with the help of private banks, which vie to attract the assets of so-called high net-worth individuals. Their wealth is, as Henry puts it, “protected by a highly paid, industrious bevy of professional enablers in the private banking, legal, accounting and investment industries taking advantage of the increasingly borderless, frictionless global economy“. According to Henry’s research, the top 10 private banks, which include UBS and Credit Suisse in Switzerland, as well as the US investment bank Goldman Sachs, managed more than £4tn in 2010, a sharp rise from £1.5tn five years earlier.

[…]

“The problem here is that the assets of these countries are held by a small number of wealthy individuals while the debts are shouldered by the ordinary people of these countries through their governments,” the report says.

The sheer size of the cash pile sitting out of reach of tax authorities is so great that it suggests standard measures of inequality radically underestimate the true gap between rich and poor. According to Henry’s calculations, £6.3tn of assets is owned by only 92,000 people, or 0.001% of the world’s population – a tiny class of the mega-rich who have more in common with each other than those at the bottom of the income scale in their own societies.

The War on Terror/Drugs

While doing research for my senior thesis last year (more on that, perhaps, another time), I read an excellent book by Greg Grandin called Empire’s Workshop, in which he argued that the Reagan administration’s training, funding, and other support for far-right Central American regimes in the 1980s could be seen as practice by US in imperial foreign policy, to be later reenacted by many of the same neoconservatives in the [George W.] Bush Administration’s War in Iraq.  (Man, sorry for that doozy of a hideous sentence.)  It’s a compelling argument, and Grandin concludes by describing the way these policies and tactics were re-imported to Central (and South) America in the US’s antinarcotics operations.

That last bit seems to be part of a broader critique of the “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” in which critics see each “war” as an inappropriate use of US global police power.  They argue that these “wars” do little to solve and may even exacerbate the problems they address and that they tend to blend together.  I’ve always seen this sort of argument as a radical position that didn’t crop up in the mainstream, but then I read this New York Times article today, “U.S. Expands Drug Fight to Africa, a Newer Hub for Cartels”:

In a significant expansion of the war on drugs, the United States has begun training an elite unit of counternarcotics police in Ghana and planning similar units in Nigeria and Kenya as part of an effort to combat the Latin American cartels that are increasingly using Africa to smuggle cocaine into Europe.

[…]

The aggressive response by the United States is also a sign of how greater attention and resources have turned to efforts to fight drugs as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.

“We see Africa as the new frontier in terms of counterterrorism and counternarcotics issues,” said Jeffrey P. Breeden, the chief of the D.E.A.’s Europe, Asia and Africa section. “It’s a place that we need to get ahead of — we’re already behind the curve in some ways, and we need to catch up.”

If even US officials are openly admitting some sort of continuity between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, then either the above-mentioned critique isn’t as radical as I thought or the fuzzy boundaries between these operations isn’t considered problematic or embarrassing anymore.

Literacy Militancy

Two Sandinistas

An interesting little story about the Sandinistas (FSLN) I came across in this piece on anti-intellectualism and leftist activism, which the author situates in the context of a former teacher of hers reporting on the FSLN in the 1980s:

She had arrived shortly after the FSLN began implementing Carlos Fonseca Amador’s vision of a strong relationship between literacy and militancy. Fonseca Amador was a librarian, teacher, and founder of the FSLN. Years after his death, his ideas lived on, and took the shape of literacy brigades. This visionary project sent 100,000 volunteers into peasant communities to end illiteracy. Drawing from the example set by the Cuban Literacy Campaign, which literally eliminated illiteracy in that country, they adapted the concept to their own unique conditions. Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal coordinated the effort, and described it this way: “not only would we teach people letters and what those letters mean, we would also make it possible for peasant farmers and urban workers to learn about their own situation and the economic, social, and political context in which they lived. We were going to teach them to answer questions like, why am I poor? We wanted them to learn to distinguish between a tragedy like a drought or an earthquake and a tragedy like poverty. We wanted them to learn that nature provokes hurricanes while human beings create poverty. Making this distinction is what conscientización is all about.”

As usual, check out the whole thing. (It’s not long!)

Image by Robert Croma

This is too fascinating

Check out the whole post, over at BLDGBLOG:

To make a long story short, McPhee describes two things: how Switzerland requires military service from every able-bodied male Swiss citizen—a model later emulated and expanded by Israel—and how the Swiss military has, in effect, wired the entire country to blow in the event of foreign invasion. To keep enemy armies out, bridges will be dynamited and, whenever possible, deliberately collapsed onto other roads and bridges below; hills have been weaponized to be activated as valley-sweeping artificial landslides; mountain tunnels will be sealed from within to act as nuclear-proof air raid shelters; and much more.

Image by Victor Chapa

Political Violence of a Different Kind

This is just appalling:

The spokesman for Greece’s extremist far-right Golden Dawn party physically assaulted two left-wing deputies on live television during a morning political show.

A public prosecutor ordered his immediate arrest following the incident on Thursday.

Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris had taken offence at a reference by radical left Syriza party member Rena Dorou to a court case that is pending against him.

He hurled a glass of water across the table over Dorou when she said there was a “crisis of democracy when people who will take the country back 500 years have got into the Greek parliament.”

He then turned on prominent Communist Party member Liana Kanelli, hitting her around the face three times.

The French are paying $36 for a burger

Blue Rondo is not obsessed with France, I swear. That said, here’s a fun little item on American food trucks invading France [NYT]:

In France, there is still a widespread belief that the daily diet in the United States consists of grossly large servings of fast food. But in Paris, American food is suddenly being seen as more than just restauration rapide. Among young Parisians, there is currently no greater praise for cuisine than “très Brooklyn,” a term that signifies a particularly cool combination of informality, creativity and quality.

All three of those traits come together in the American food trucks that have just opened here, including Cantine California, which sells tacos stuffed with organic meat (still a rarity in France), and a hugely popular burger truck called Le Camion Qui Fume (The Smoking Truck), owned by Kristin Frederick, a California native who graduated from culinary school here.

[…]

American chefs are at the helm of some of Paris’s hippest restaurants, like Daniel Rose of Spring, Kevin O’Donnell of L’Office and Braden Perkins of Verjus. And the city’s collective crush on high-end hamburgers continues: Parisians are paying 29 euros, or just over $36, for the popular burger at Ralph’s, the Hamptons-Wyoming-chic restaurant in the palatial Ralph Lauren store.

[…]

In French restaurants, and sometimes even fast-food joints, burgers are eaten with utensils, not hands.